Thursday, August 23, 2012

Witty Repartee

"How do you create dialogue for your novel?" Russ asked.

The Muse sat silent for a couple of minutes.  Finally, she said, "I think the key to good verbal interplay comes from sounding natural.  It also needs to help the story move instead of just being a placeholder."

"What do you mean by natural?"

"You have to be able to see real people, or at least the characters in your story, actually having a conversation like the one you're putting on paper.  A lot of authors like to write beautifully scripted dialogue, but what they put down looks more like it belongs in a work of William Shakespeare rather than real life."

"I know what you mean," Russ replied.  "I've seen a lot of folks try and put in a bunch of flowery words that no one really uses.  There aren't lots of people in everyday life that walk around talking about being 'smitten' with their girlfriend or 'inspired to partake of the celebration.'  That kind of stuff sounds uptight."

"Yes, it does," the Muse said.  "When writing dialogue, it helps to say it out loud.  Better yet, a writer should bounce that dialogue off of a friend or spouse.  The author and his or her partner should see what it sounds like if they have a conversation from the text.  It makes it much easier to see where the words stumble."

"Interesting," Russ murmured.  "Besides the natural flow of conversation, can you use any other tricks to bring words to life?"

"A few," the Muse said.  "However, these should be used sparingly.  When you write something for a character to say, the most common way to note that is to attribute the word 'said' to them."

"But sometimes a simple 'said' doesn't convey the way a person meant it," Russ pointed out.

"That's true," the Muse admitted.  "But just like the conversation should flow naturally, so should the modifiers.  Words like stammered and exclaimed have their place, but they have to enhance the tone.  Very few people are always animated.  They talk and listen, but they only get hyped up when it's important.  Otherwise people might think they can't control their emotions."

Russ nodded and pursed his lips.  "What did you mean earlier when you said it should keep the story going?"

"That extraneous dialogue bogs down the reader."  The Muse sighed and found a seat.  She rubbed the back of her neck and then looked back up at Russ.  "Sure, in everyday life, people will talk about all kinds of stuff, but in a novel, you need to conserve space where you can.  If what the characters are saying doesn't advance the story, you should cut it."

"This is hard," Russ said.

"No shit," replied the Muse.

After another few seconds of silence, Russ asked, "Do you always have to attribute what is said to a specific person?  Doesn't that get messy?"

"Not always," the Muse said.  "They key is to structure the conversation so that the reader knows who's speaking.  When there are only two people in the room, you can leave out a lot of attribution, although it helps to put it in every once in a while so the reader doesn't forget who's saying what.

"But in a conversation where there are more than two people, you have to either go back to attribution much more frequently, or you have to make it clear from the dialogue and tone who the speaker is.  I'd rather err on the side of too much attribution rather than too little, because otherwise the reader might be confused and have to go back through the text to remember who said what."

"How much action should you intersperse with the dialogue?" Russ asked.

"As much as is needed," the Muse said.  "Sometimes dialogue is used to break up action into more manageable pieces.  At other times, you can have a chapter of nothing but dialogue."

"Who's best at it?"

The Muse thought for a minute.  "JK Rowling does a pretty good job.  I also like how Stephen King pulls it off.  But for my taste, no one does it better than Harry Turtledove - the dialogue in his books punctuates what's going on around the characters, and I've never been lost when following one of his stories.  When you think you can hear the conversation rather than just reading it, that's when you know you've hit the mark."

"I've known a lot of writers who haven't hit the mark," Russ said.

"More often than not, that's the case.  Too many have stilted dialogue.  More try too hard by putting in modifiers like 'babbled' or 'yelled' when it's not necessary.  Even those who are good at it can miss the target by not structuring it the right way."

"Like how?"

"Maybe this is just a personal preference, but I prefer for the character to act as opposed to be acted on.  A writer should use 'so and so said' rather than 'said so and so' most of the time.  I only use the second technique if I want to indicate passivity.  Otherwise, I want people to understand that the character is strong enough to own the words.  You can do that without the reader even realizing it by properly placing the conversation modifier."

"I hadn't thought about that before," Russ said.  He now stood and walked over to the door in his mind.  "Okay, you stay here.  I've got to write another 5,000 words tomorrow, and I don't want you wandering off."

The Muse didn't move.  Instead, she favored him with a small smile.  "You can try and keep me here if you like, but I have ways of escaping.  Treat me poorly, and I'll leave you when you need me most."

"We'll see," Russ shrugged.  With that, he walked out and locked the door behind him.  The real question was whether she was really at his beck and call, or could she still slip away?  He'd find out the next time he fired up his laptop.
(Don't just sit there stonefaced - say something!)


  1. Great dialogue with your muse!! I have a habit of having too much description with dialogue. I like how you structured yours! My characters make a TON of eye expressions in my dialogue! Heh heh...

    And you can do 5,000 words a day???? I have trouble reaching 1,000 day!

    1. To be honest, 5,000 in a day is a rare occurrence for me(although it has happened from time to time...usually when I'm out of the country with no access to TV or the Internet). 2,000 a day is more my goal, and I break that into bite size chunks(1,000 in the morning before work, and another 1,000 in the evening before bed).