Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Editing - Part Two - Dialogue

Last week I shared a ten-point checklist to keep in mind while you edit your work-in-progress. As promised, this week, I will talk about Dialogue.

The most important point to remember when writing dialogue, is that Less Is More.

I cannot stress this point enough. As a matter of fact, I am going to break my less-is-more rule and say it two more times.

Less Is More.

Less Is More.

Got it?

Dialogue in a novel or short story is nothing like real-life conversation. When two actual-human-people sit in a coffee shop to chat about each other's lives, they use "um" and "oh" and repeat phrases, and use slang words such as "like-you know" and "seriously." On the page, characters have much more finesse. They do not pause with um's and uh's, they don't say "eh," even though they might be from Canada, and they don't use the word "like" every fourth word, even if they are in high school.

Dialogue MUST be concise. I cannot stress this enough.

To develop your "ear" for dialogue, you need to read good fiction writers who are masterful at dialogue. Elmore Leonard is one of these masters. Read a few of his books. (You can probably find them in the library.) You also need to watch movies. Many movies. Because films tell a story using visual and voice. Movie trailers are another good source of great dialogue, because the editors choose the best possible lines from a movie to include in its trailer.

Think of memorable lines from classic movies. Most of the time, these phrases are precise, brief, and packed with punch.

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." - Gone With the Wind

"Play it, Sam." - Casablanca

"I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to Heaven." - An Affair to Remember

"You shall not pass." - Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

"They mostly come at night. Mostly." - Aliens

"Why so serious?" - The Dark Night

See what I mean? They are all short. They are all powerful. They are all memorable.

I always try to put at least one "memorable" line in a short story. It's like candy, the reader will want to come back for more.

When you're writing dialogue, try to make each character sound unique, with their own distinct voice. The words that each one speaks should not only tell the reader what they're thinking but also something about their personality. Think of a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you take one line of dialogue from any character and type it on a piece of paper, you should be able to ask another Buffy fan to tell you who spoke that line of dialogue in the show. The fan can probably guess who said the line from the particular way that each character on the show puts words together. Joss Whedon was a master at creating unique and character-specific dialogue. If you have never seen the show, rent a few episodes from any season and watch them, even if you hate vampires. Because the dialogue study is worth it.

Dialogue should also imply what isn't being said. Because subtly and undercurrents of misinformation, sarcasm, and hidden emotion add depth to a story.

As a final point, last week, I discussed the use of dialogue tags, or using "said" nine times out of ten for showing the reader which character is speaking. "Said" is much more transparent than "shouted," "whispered," "intoned," etc. And, in a section of dialogue, if only two people are speaking, the reader can tell which one speaks each line by the rhythm of A/B speak/reply so you can often eliminate the "said" tags completely. You want the reader to focus on the dialogue, rather than being bogged down by all of the he said/she said on the page.

A quick example:

"Come over here, Bud," Jeff intoned to his friend.

"What do you need?" Bud asked with some disdain in his voice. It was clear he was upset.

"I need you to go home." Jeff insisted. "Because I think I can score better with this pretty Brunette if you're not hanging around."

"So now you don't need your friend?" Bud snorted. "That's kind of hurtful. Maybe I should ditch you next week as well."

That was painful to read, wasn't it? Full of awkward phrases and too much telling. Not to mention said-isms that make you want to slap the author with a newspaper. Change the dialogue tags to said, use action, or eliminate the tags and you get:

Jeff waved Bud over, and said, "Hey."

"What?" Bud sipped his beer.

"Time to separate. I'm one line from leaving with the Brunette. No offense."

"Ouch." Bud slugged his beer and slammed the glass on the bar. "See you next week. Maybe."

The second example is tighter, and Bud's simple, "Maybe" implies that Jeff might have lost his friend's companionship the next time. The reader will (hopefully) read on to find out what happens between these two friends.

So the next time you're editing, pay some extra attention to cleaning up the dialogue. Less is More.

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