[process] Some notes on dialog

Had a constructive conversation the other day with the delightful about the uses of flash fiction as a personal development tool. I’ve commented on this before at length, how flash serves as a laboratory for focusing on specific aspects of craft. Character in a setting with a problem: “The cop stumbled over the body in the apartment door.” What cop? Whose body? Whose apartment? But also, focusing on characterization, blocking, action, background detail, dialog, etc. Any one of those things, in the framework of a very short story. Might be salable, might not, but good practice nonetheless with the cardinal virtue of being closed-ended and therefore a rewarding activity that can be concluded over a single writing session.

and I got on to flash as dialog. I pointed out we all have a tendency to write who we are. I write lots of middle aged, over-educated heteronormative white guy dialog when I’m defaulting. And one thing that drives me bats in fiction is overuse of dialog tags.

Which are necessary if you have two middle aged, over-educated heteronormative white guys talking to one another. On the other hand, if you have a stuffy old closeted professor of Classics talking to a newly-immigrated Somali cab driver, you could get away with almost no tags whatsoever, other than a little blocking assistance. These two characters will have very different speech registers, and very different assumptions about the world.

One of my more extensive experiments in flash was working on integrating dialog with characterization, blocking, setting and other story elements so I could get away from “Jane said”/”Aaron said” tennis matches. Finding ways to signal the speaker through their actions or context or placement in the scene allowed words to do double, treble or quadruple duty, all while cleaning up the text. This makes the story world both economical and interesting.

What’s a favorite example from your own work, or others, of how to embed dialog like this?

10 thoughts on “[process] Some notes on dialog

  1. I share your general distaste for generic he said/she said dialog tags. But sometimes, it’s simply the most economical way to convey who is speaking to the reader (with the caveat that it is often necessary to replace the vague pronoun with a character’s name).

    However, what’s better is if the speaker can be conveyed either by:
    *Tone of speech
    *Other cues such as actions immediately preceding or following the dialog

    Neither is always possible, and certainly neither is very easy to do, but I try to do these things as much as I’m able to in my own work. No good examples, though…

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I have summary notes from my workshop on dialogue on my website: http://www.terryodell.com where I address some of these points, with examples.

  3. Cora says:

    I usually try to break up dialogue with action and observations from the POV character. It doesn’t work with every scene. If two characters are sitting on a sofa or at a table talking, there’s not much action for them to do. It’s also easy to lose track of the action, i.e. characters sitting down when they’re already sitting, or get repetitive, i.e. characters, eating, drinking, brushing their hair from their faces all the time.

    One scene in my current novel in progress which I like a lot has two characters talking while one is preparing fried fish for the other. Lots of distinctive action to break up the dialogue and no need for tags.

    Different styles and tones of speech can work as well, though I’m not a big fan of trying to phonetically transcribe distinctive dialects, because it often ends up very difficult to read, never mind that e.g. the standard transcription of Scottish accents (“Ye dinnae ken…”) sounds nothing like actual Scottish people to me.

    Though sometimes a dialogue tag, whether a plain “said” or something more specific, is the best way of handling dialogue.

    Though there no excuse, absolutely none at all, for using “he ejaculated” as a dialogue tag.

    1. I think a very limited dose of “phonetic accents” in dialog can be effective in conveying an accent without being too unreadable… but it can’t be every word (as your “Ye dinnae ken” example) or it really does become unreadable.

      That, and… it would be probably be pretty dang helpful if you actually know what the accent sounds like before trying to convey even a single word of that sound phonetically in your writing.

      On the other hand, I have read advice that suggests that any attempt to convey an accent in writing is misguided, but at the same time I’ve seen successfully published novels that did, so I don’t think that’s a hard-and-fast rule… but it’s definitely an area where caution should be advised.

      1. Cora says:

        The “Ye dinnae ken…” example was taken from a bestselling series of historical novels, where much of the dialogue is like that. Not only does it get really annoying after a while, it also doesn’t even sound Scottish to me when read out loud. However, there seems to be a convention in English language writing, particularly by Americans, that “Ye dinnae ken…” is what Scottish people sound like. So there is a pretty good chance that bestselling author only imitated convention rather than listening to actual Scots. Never mind that not all Scottish people sound the same. Glasgow and Edinburgh accents are very different and the Highlands (where the novel in question was set) would sound very different again.

        It’s particularly these conventions in rendering the dialogues of certain groups that annoy me. Not all Mafiosi sound like Marlon Brando in The Godfather (I once had a story rejected because my mafiosi did not speak like mafiosi). Not all pirates say things like “Arr, matey…” and they certainly didn’t say it before Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. Coincidentally, the “Arr, matey…” thing is supposedly based on a British West Counties accent, but again the actual people living there today don’t sound like that to me at all. Maybe the ones who did speak like that all sailed off to become pirates.

        When the characters in question are not native speakers of English, it gets even worse. Contrary to what some writers seem to believe, non-native speakers don’t usually pepper their speech with words in their native language, particularly not easy words. Bonus points if the author manages to totally mangle said foreign words and double bonus points if said mangling results in a different word, making the dialogue line unintentionally hilarious or utterly baffling to any native speaker of the language in question. And trying to imitate accents of non-native speakers can veer dangerously close to racist clichés like the r and l confusion with Asian, primarily Chinese, characters. I am just reading an otherwise fine book which is marred by this. So in short, if you must have non-English bits or mangled dialogue by non native speakers in your text, get a native speaker of the language to vet it for you. A native speaker can also help you to detect connotations that you may not be aware of. So you get something like, “Dear writer! The term of endearment your German speaking character just used is not a term an actual German would ever use, because it has a strongly negative connotation of ‘slut who sleeps with foreigners or soldiers’. And besides, you didn’t even spell the word correctly, in fact he just called her ‘undershirt’. Which really ruined the love scene for me, because it took me five minutes to figure out why anyone would call his girlfriend ‘undershirt’.”

        An added complication is that unless you use phonetic script for your dialogue (which would make it pretty much impossible to read for 98% of the population), capturing certain phonetic idiosyncrasies in writing can be very difficult. Capturing the dropped “h” in Cockney is fairly easy, but I’ve yet to figure out how to render the long “u” found in many Northern English accents in writing, though it is pretty easy to imitate in speech.

        Of course, it is possible to capture distinctive dialects in writing. William Faulkner captures the Southern US accents very well IMO, but then Faulkner was a) a genius and b) a Southerner who was familiar with the way actual people speak in the deep South.

        So if a writer really wants to try the phonetically rendered dialect, it helps to be very familiar with the way people in the region in question (and of the economic background in question) speak. It also helps to read actual writers from the region and see how they handle it. Hence, for Scottish accented dialogue, read Scottish writers and not American historical novelists copying hand-me down conventions.

        Besides, distinctive words, turns of phrase and syntactic peculiarities are usually better ways of capturing a bit of local flavour than going for full phonetic dialect.

        1. I’ll strongly agree with your latter point – though naturally that’s something that’s much, much more difficult to capture, because it requires a strong familiarity with the speech patterns of an area in order to be able to bring out those unique bits.

          1. Cora says:

            I’d say that you should be familiar with local speech patterns in general before trying to write dialogue with a strong local flavour.

            1. Touche. Good point.

  4. Alex J. Kane says:

    One way to avoid he said/she said is to keep your characters active. In other words:

    She ordained the rockstar a full-fledged knight. “Sir Morrison, you may rise.”

    He grabbed the microphone from Bono, cleared his throat. “This is a great honor, My Queen. But of course, we all know I deserve this.”

    I try to do this as often as possible, but if they do happen to be standing still (do something, dammit!), then:

    He stared blankly, unmoving. Silent.

    “You’re such a boring dude,” she said. “I knew I should’ve gone on a date with your brother, instead.”

    “You’re so cruel, sweetheart,” he said.

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