Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bad Dialogue! No Cookie!

Ah yes, we’ve been here before. That moment where the exposition has ended and it’s the characters’ time to open their mouths and carry the story. This is where the story takes off. This is where the characters reveal themselves. This is where the reader falls asleep, or worse, closes the book. “He had me up until the characters started speaking…then the invisible wall was removed and I could see the author plain as day.”

Let’s hope no one out there ever has a review like this. I can’t imagine a book getting to the publishing stage if the dialogue is that bad, but I digress. What is it that makes great dialogue and how do we, as writers, make sure that our dialogue isn’t killing an otherwise great story?

Life is an ongoing dialogue, isn’t it? So, why is it that we have such trouble writing it? Perhaps, it’s because everyday dialogue isn’t very interesting:
Brad walked into the kitchen, his empty cup in hand. He placed the cup against the water spigot and waited for it to fill.

“Morning, Brad,” came the voice over his shoulder. It was Karen, the accounting clerk from the second floor.

“Morning,” he said.

“Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah…it was pretty quiet. How about you?”

“Meh…it was ok,” she said. He pulled his cup away just in time to avoid an accident.

“See you later,” he said.

“See you,” she said.

Zzzzz……oh, we’re back! Anyway, you get the point. Everyday life isn’t always about brilliant conversation. But, as boring as this example might be, this may very well happen every day in an office somewhere. This may very well be the type of character interaction necessary for the development of your story. Sometimes, it’s the mundane interactions that reveal the most about your characters. Let’s ramp it up a notch and make it really horrible.

“Good morning, Bradley,” she said.

“Good morning, Karen” he said.

“Did you have any fun on Saturday or Sunday?” she asked.

“I did not have any fun on Saturday or Sunday. Did you have any fun on Saturday or Sunday?” he asked back.

“No,” she said.

“Oh. Ok. I will see you later on today,” he said.

“See you later on today,” she said.

That was painful. I think I actually hurt something by writing it. What’s frightening is that I’ve read dialogue (thankfully unpublished) like this before. So, what’s wrong about it? How can we rescue this and turn it into something that the reader will like. Let’s break it down.

First off, if we have two characters who know one another, then a formal greeting, such as this one, has to be followed up with a sense of irony or conscious effort, or we’ve lost the reader. Unless you’re talking about coworkers at a law firm or country club, more often than not, they aren’t going to be so formal. But, let’s say this is two folks who have worked together for a long time and this is their standard greeting. There’s no problem with that, so long as it’s given a modifier.
“Good morning, Bradley,” she said. He could hear the smile in Karen’s voice before he saw it.

“Good morning, Karen,” he said, turning to return the smile.
There…that’s not too bad. We’ve managed to keep the dialogue and save it by softening it with a situational interaction. Is the dialogue still formal? Yes. But, we’ve made it a little joke between the two characters but underlining it with a sense of sarcasm.

“Did you have any fun on Saturday or Sunday?” If you’ve heard this question asked in real life, I hope they were under the age of 10, over the age of 70, or from a foreign country. No one speaks like this. If you doubt it, take a trip to your local mall food court. Spend some time eves dropping. I know it sounds bad, but listen in on some conversations. You’re not looking for content…your digging for reality. Even the simple “How was your weekend?” is better than what we have. But, if we’ve already established that these two characters are familiar enough to have a little formal banter, then we have to carry that familiarity through. Karen and Brad probably talked about their weekends on Friday before the weekend began. They probably know exactly what the other had planned.
“How was that party Saturday night?” she asked.

“Eh…it was ok,” he said.

“So, it sucked, is what you’re saying,” she said, leaning against the kitchen counter.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, pretty much.”
Not only have we avoided some stilted dialogue, but now that we’ve developed this more relaxed atmosphere, we have a lead into a continued conversation.
“How about you? How was that concert?” he asked.

“Remember all that rain? Yeah…we had lawn seats,” she said, curling her upper lip.

“Oh…bummer,” he said.

“Yeah,” she said.
Now, obviously, if we’re trying to create a greater sense of plot development, we’ve laid the ground to move further into this particular relationship. If this is only a revelation of character, you might have to go back and decide just what you’re trying to get out of this short encounter. If Brad is your primary character, what is it about this bit of dialogue that will affect the rest of the story? And, ultimately, is this dialogue necessary to further the plot, or are you just filling space?

To wrap up, let’s just finish off this brief interaction. We have established that these are two people who are familiar coworkers, or even friends.
“See you at lunch later?” he asked.

“I’ll be there,” she said.

“Cool,” he said, smiling.

“See ya.”

“Yeah…see ya,” he said, and headed back to his desk.
If you’re having trouble with dialogue, and you’re not hearing it clearly in your head, find a quiet place to have a little private conversation with yourself. Say it out loud. Listen to how the words sound. Is this something you would say to someone? Is it something you could hear someone saying? If you’re unsure of your dialogue, like I said before, do some research. Go out and listen to people. It’s the best way to get a handle on how people really talk to one another (Just, like, don’t, like, overdo it, like, you know, like, what I mean, like? Nobody, like, wants to, like, read too much of, like, this).

Last, if you’re not writing a contemporary piece, I suggest going back and finding some contemporary literature to the time you are writing about. Or, if it’s within the last 70 years, find someone who was a teenager during your particular time frame. Nothing better than a first-hand account of the language of the times.

There are few stories that can succeed without a decent amount of dialogue (The Road comes to mind, though I’m sure there are others). It can be the most memorable part of the story if done well. But, don’t turn it into something it isn’t. Good dialogue isn’t impossible. It just takes some patience and good ear. If you don’t have a good ear, take the time to develop it. Your readers will thank you.