Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dialogue vs.Conversation

Inspiring Me Today: Quite a few people, it seems.

I recently came across a very interesting blog post by agent Anita Bartholomew responding to a Salon article about self-publishing. I had read the article in question and agreed with it on the whole, but found Ms. Bartholomew's post enlightening.

Other than the general usefulness of the post itself, there was a single line that jumped out at me. In describing some of the common pitfalls people encounter in their writing, Bartholomew said, "they don’t know the difference between dialogue and conversation."

Well, that threw me for a bit of a loop. I'd never heard it put that way, so I did some research. I'm not 100% sure where Ms. Bartholomew sees the division, but the most helpful thing I found was this description from author and teacher Dory Lynch (a totally random find! Thanks Google!):
In plays dialog is not idle conversation. Dramatic dialogue should only be included if it does at least one of two things (if not both): advance the plot, and/or develop characters.

Definition: William Packard defined dialogue as "the rapid back and forth exchange that takes place between on-stage characters." He said that "good dramatic dialogue always advances the major actions of the play."
  1. Remember most people seldom speak in whole sentences.
  2. Have each character speak in unique patterns, vocabulary, and choice of subject.
Carol Korty said that the "words of the whole play are like a piece of music—they create sounds, rhythms, tones that are heard and physically felt. They also create images. In this way, dialogue is also poetry, whether or not it rhymes or has a definite meter."

The post is about plays, but still it's helpful. What does this tell us? It tells us that your characters should not simply have a conversation. The conversation should have a point. If it's just fat, then we need to trim it.

However, there's another side of the thing we need to look at too. For the book to work, the dialogue shouldn't feel like dialogue. How do you know you've fallen into that trap? Well, when you're readers can see "Information imparted here" flashing above your characters' heads like a flashing neon sign, that's a bad thing. It causes distancing. And distancing is bad.

We don't want to know we're in a book. We want to completely forget that. When you read a book and "get lost in its pages," it happens because everything feels natural.

So how do you do it? Well, first, think of the information you need to impart. If you've planned your novel the way you're supposed to, then you should have a big list of "to tell" stuff. If your readers know everything they need to know in the book, then you better be at the end of the thing or you're in BIG trouble.

Now that you have the information in question, think about how such a topic would normally come up. Don't force it into a place that people wouldn't normally discuss it. Some topics, especially personal ones, will take a lot of buildup. People don't typically start spilling the beans about their private lives in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot (well, you totally could write it that way, but never mind).

However, buildup is tricky. You don't want to give us every second of the inane discussion of the weather. We need to start the scene later on than that. Still, you don't want to skip right to the juicy stuff, because the reader needs to build up to it just as much as the characters do.

So, here's what I recommend: multitask your scenes. This is my #1 biggest recommendation across the board when it comes to writing, but especially for making your dialogue effective. Have several goals for the dialogue scene and accomplish them in stages. If your characters need to develop or we need to see growth in their interrelationship, then show that while your're building up to that important backstory jaw-dropper.

Past this, I can't really help you. You can either capture that feeling that these people are real or you can't. Writing is as much about innate talent as it is developed skill. I don't know where I stand on the talent scale, but as for the skill... well, the skill I can work on.

[Author's note: I personally like the "dialogue" spelling and have decided to use it. I could care less if the "proper American spelling" is actually "dialog." Leave me alone, stupid spell check.]
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