This is the teaser for today’s post, contributed by David Corbett, who’s here to talk about dialogue. It’s an essential part of storytelling, and to be successful, it has to be realistic. But in truth, dialogue is messy; it’s rambling and self-centered, and doesn’t always end up sharing what’s meant to be conveyed. I’m so glad David is here today to share some techniques for how to do it right…
It’s often said that the writing of dialog requires reading, not listening to actual conversation. This is because real speech suffers from a variety of pitfalls—pointless digressions, mindless nattering, and the twitchy insertion of um, like, you know, and other verbal tics.
But one can’t expect to create realism while straying too far from reality, either.
Ironically, actual speech often proves most instructive for dialog purposes when it breaks down, usually because the speakers are at cross-purposes.
Since your characters are contesting, blocking, countering each other’s goals, there is often a halting, stop-and-start quality to dialog that beginners routinely miss. Remember that each character has her own objective in each scene. Rather than respond to the first character, the second character may press her own point, and it may have little or nothing to do with what the first character tried to get across.
A great deal of bad dialog is either dueling pronouncements or a kind of verbal tennis, in which each volley gets answered by the next. This soon becomes labored and artificial, like the singsong back-and-forth between a teacher and her star pupil.
Remember that people cut each other off, they don’t listen, they talk over each other. The result: truncated sentences, tangents, non sequiturs. If used judiciously, these tactics can provide a sense of realism. Used to excess, they quickly seem affected—worse, boring.
A few specific techniques that can enhance a sense of realism—if used wisely—include:
Changing the subject (or answering a question with another question): This is a principal way for one character to ignore what the other said, either because he has something more pressing he wants to talk about or he’s trying to avoid the implications of what the first speaker is saying. The new tack in the conversation becomes an obstacle the first speaker has to overcome to continue pursuing the conversational objective and not get sidetracked or stonewalled.
Giving unsolicited advice: When one character is trying to get a point across, having the other give him unwanted advice feels like being ignored—with “the best of intentions.”
Topping the other person’s story: Instead of just ignoring what the first speaker said, the second speaker minimizes it. “That’s nothing, you should’ve seen what happened to me.” In one stroke, the second speaker has invalidated the first.
Finishing the other character’s sentences: This again is a status play, demeaning the other character by insinuating that what he has to say is patently obvious.
Interpreting what the other character is saying: This often starts out with something like, “You mean to tell me,” which is different than paraphrasing the other character while trying to understand. It’s instead a way for one character to say he knows what the other was trying to say better than she does.
Asking a question, then not listening to the answer: This suggests the character wants to seem interested when he really isn’t. The question is a pose, not a real desire for information.
In the martial art known as dialog, all of these techniques are preemptive attacks, blocking maneuvers, dodges, or feints. Put to good use, they can add a touch of realism to dialog. But like anything else, they can also seem forced or overly clever, especially if unmotivated.
David Corbett is the author of four novels: Devil’s Redhead (New Blood), Done for a Dime(a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise: A Novel (Mortalis) (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Blood of Paradise: A Novel (Mortalis) David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). He has taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US. He lives in Vallejo, CA.