Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dialog (1 of 3) - The Basics

Know thyself.

As a writer - as well as anybody else -  you have to know your strength and weaknesses. I'm good in describing. I can paint a picture on the page by using words. Unfortunately describing is not en vogue right now, but let's talk about this in another blog. Hopefully the fashion will change again on this. One of my weaker points is dialog. It just doesn't flow out of my fingertips as description. All the details that make dialogue good dialog, I had to learn them by hard. However, I think I'm not alone with this - so here are my experiences and techniques I use to get around it. 

Before I start, let me answer to the purpose question: Why dialog?
As a storyteller I am used to narrate. In that situation I would rather talk about indirect speech than dialogue. Don't get me wrong; this is horrible writing and probably the reason, why this is so hard for me. I follow the maxim, "show" the key plot points of a story and "tell" the connectors between them. Dialog is an important piece of the "Show"-part. Dialog is communication and communication is life. If you have two or more people in a scene you will have communication between them. Showing this as dialogue is a chance to say more than just the words you use. 

Example? Here you go:

John couldn't stand the endless discussions about having a baby anymore. He got angry and left the room when she started to talk about it.


"Don't walk away from me. Don't ignore me." Anna shouted after him.
John stuck his head back through the door.
"I walk away when you bring up a discussion we had held a million times before. I don't want a child and that's it."

The first part of this blog post is about the basics: Punctuation, dialog tags and blocking
Punctuation separates the dialog from the rest of the story, dialog tags help us to identify who is talking and blocking gives us the surroundings, as dialog usually doesn't happen in a white room.

1. Punctuation 
Ok, I agree. Most of you had this in school and it is kind of a must for a writer. I learned this too, in German - and punctuation is different there, so I had to learn the differences.

Quotation marks
Spoken part of dialog is in "..." and follows the same rules as a normal sentence (e.g. Capital letter at the beginning point/exclamation mark/question mark at the end - except for the dialog tag comma).

"He has gone."
"Do you love him?"

Dialog tags
Dialog tags are separated by commas from the dialog. 
"He has gone," Anna said
Susan said, "Do you love him?"
However: "He has gone." Anna sighs when she finally admits it to Susan.

Line breaks
New line for each new spoken part as well as for the blocking in between.

Dany didn't notice that Anna stood behind him.
"She is really sexy today. I wonder where old messy Anna is"
"You can be such an idiot." 
The words hit him like a slap on the back of his head.

Internal dialog
The format of internal dialog depends on the POV.

  • First person: No special formatting necessary (everything happens in the main character's head anyway)
  • Regular third person: Use italics
  • Omniscient POV: Use italics and a tag as you have to define, whose internal dialog it is

Special cases

  • Use "..." for swallowed parts of the dialog
  • Use "-" if somebody is interrupted

2. Inflation of the dialog tags
Dialog tags are bad. They are almost as bad as repeating the name in the dialog over and over again, but not as bad. Both bad writing habits serve one purpose: Tell the reader who spoke. But why are they bad? They interrupt the flow of the dialog and make it feel artificial to the reader. 

"I wouldn't go in there,"said John.
"Why not?" asked Steve.
"Because Anna is still furious," replied John.
"I haven't done anything," said Steve.


"I wouldn't go in there, Steve."
"Why not, John?"
"Because Anna is still furious, Steve."

Sorry, I have to stop here with bad examples - I'm getting goosebumps. 

The right way to do this, is using dialog tags only sparingly. Trust in your reader, that they know who is talking by what they say and how they say it. Only the owner of the bar would state that wanted to have small stage for a Jazz band, but he didn't get the permission. Only the guest orders the check (not the waiter). If it not clear, rather use blocking to determine who is talking. In my current novel I have a situation, where one character is mentally in a bad situation and the other one tries to improve his mood - so I let him talk about non important things in a kind of a monolog. For about a whole page I use no dialog tag, because it is clear that only on character is talking.

And last but not least, only use the name in the dialog if it is a special situation. My mother, for example, would only call be by my full name if I had done something wrong. I also observed, that couples would use the full name of their spouse, when they are angry. Other than these examples; don't do it.

3. Blocking
The most important part of dialog is probably blocking. Dialog doesn't happen in an empty room and people usually don't stand still while talking. There is always movement and blocking servers to tell the reader this movement. Imagine a story, where the villain tries to stab the hero with a kitchen knife.  We need to tell the reader, that they are in a kitchen and at some point in the dialog, we might want the villain to walk over to the kitchen counter. 

Blocking can also be used to have time passed. For example, you can add a sentence like:
In the mean time they reached the end of Central Park and John realized he had never been in Harlem before.

Obviously, they were talking for hours, even if the actual dialog you show is only 10 lines.
As usual, there are exception to the rule. Sometimes you might want to have dialog in an empty room. By doing that, the dialog itself gets a whole other weight. Hence, the dialog must be a key piece of the story and the words must be selected even more carefully.

Next blog, I'll talk about the 100 ways to say say, good dialog vs. bad dialog and dialog in real live vs writing dialog.

Happy writing

Your writer in a foreign land

No comments:

Post a Comment