The Discussion of Dialogue [Guest Post]

Monday, 9 April 2012

Abigail was so sweet in agreeing to guest post (for the first time for both of us!) on Fullness of Joy about "writing good dialogue". You can view my introductory post here. I hope you all enjoy.
Thank you so much, Abigail! 
Over the past few weeks Joy and I have been conversing over email about writing, in general, and dialogue, in particular. The topic dovetailed nicely with the post I did a little while ago on "voices" in a novel; in fact, I had been toying with the idea of doing a follow-up post on dialogue before she and I started chatting about it. Hopefully that is what this will be.

I am not much of one for dissecting story structure. I never enjoyed Literature classes for that reason; it seems too bad to pick apart an author's writing until it is hardly recognizable for the story it once was. I don't deny that there is some help to be gained from such dissection; as in the biological world, it is crucial for knowing the interworkings of those living words. But I was never fond of dissections in biology, and I think that has carried over into my reading style as well.

Despite that, however, I do tend to look at stories in two great parts: dialogue and narration. Dialogue is anything inside quotation marks (I lump the protagonist's thoughts into this category, too, since they tend to be in monologue form); narration is, well, everything outside. Both can be hard to write, but the area of dialogue is the one in which writers tend to have the most difficulty. How closely should characters' speech resemble "real life" dialogues? How casual is too casual, how formal too formal? How do we get to the point of a conversation without it sounding abrupt? How do we differentiate between characters' ways of speaking? There are a dozen questions that come up and conflicting answers to meet them.


in general...

Critics debate whether written dialogue should mirror real life conversations, but the answer is neither a clear yes nor a clear no. There's a fine line between having characters who speak exactly as people in the real world do, and writing dialogue that is so unrealistic as to be stilted. Day-to-day conversations tend to be mundane and, too, they are not always very articulate; in one email, Joy commented on the fact that when we speak, we don't always think through what we are about to say or have a reason for the conversation at all. This cannot be the case in writing. In a story, every scene has a purpose and is driving toward some goal; not every conversation has to have the same degree of purpose, but they cannot be rambling simply because the author doesn't know what to say. Written dialogue is an ideal; it is, in some degree, how we wish we talked in real life.


On the other hand, being idealistic does not mean that written dialogue can be divorced from the way in which people do speak. For instance, unless there is a particular reason intrinsic to the story and the characters, dialogue should not be contraction-free. Neither should characters "over-address" one another, using names more than is appropriate. These points, frequently brought up, are part of the balance that must be found in each author's writing and make up the broad brushstrokes of dialogue. The finer details are much more individualistic and depend a great deal on the characters themselves.

in particular...

Whenever I sit down and try to bend my mind to any one element of writing - description, dialogue, action, what have you - I always seem to come round to the characters in the end. A plot may be the backbone of any story, but it seems to me that characters are what provide color and life, and I can't think of any portion of writing that can be divorced from them. Dialogue is no different: the character speaking has to be connected with his words for them to have dimension. Practically, this means knowing one's cast so that each character's style of speech comes naturally to the page. Who a person is affects the words they say and how they say them. To quote Scripture slightly out of context, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."

Two important caveats are needed here. First, it is rare that a writer knows even their main character very well before beginning a story, and so it may take time for the protagonist - and the minor players as well - to develop. If you think the character is flat, don't despair; the process of writing will be helpful in fleshing him out, and then there is always the editing process in which to fix deficiencies at the beginning. Second, knowing your character does not mean that his words will always flow beautifully onto the page. There are just some days when writing anything is like pulling teeth and everything that does come is very ugly. But again - editing process!

 in summation...

Dialogue is not easy to dissect, nor is it easy to grasp and to write well. There are a number of things that are critical to doing so, however. The first, all-important one is to read books in which the dialogue is done skilfully, to immerse yourself in the wit of others who are the acknowledged (and perhaps the unacknowledged) Greats in writing. Some say that writers should study how people talk in daily life, but going simply from what I hear people around me saying, I don't think there's much wit to be gained in this area. However, this method does allow you to pick up more gossip.

The second necessity, already mentioned, is to know one's characters and to let their dialogue flow from that knowledge. Jane Austen's characters are a good example of this, I find. Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax's aunt from Emma, is a very good-humored, silly woman and she positively prattles. Emma Woodhouse herself, often witty at the expense of others, nearly always has something lively and pointed to say. The irritating Mrs. Elton "fusses," running on in a manner different from Miss Bates' because it is totally self-centered. Austen's novels provide dozens of other examples, but this is a good sampling of how the dialogue is derived naturally from the characters themselves.

Third, in the process of writing it can be helpful to stop and plan what is to be the focus of any scene of dialogue. Having some knowledge of where the conversation should go, rather than launching the characters willy-nilly into their speeches, will go a long way toward avoiding totally pointless rambles. I have often been miffed to discover far into a conversation that, though there are a good deal of words going around, nothing is actually being said. Then I have to go back, take out the rubbish, and begin again. So planning ahead, if only so that you establish to yourself what point you are driving toward, is extremely beneficial.

and, you know, there is always the editing.


Abigail Hartman is the author of The Soldier's Cross, a historical novel set during the Hundred Years' War. Her debut work, it was published in 2010 by Ambassador Intl. and is newly available in Dutch through De Banier Publishing. Abigail writes both historical fiction and fantasy and also keeps a blog, Scribbles and Ink Stains, where she posts on the topics of writing, reading, and matters in between.

6 sweet note(s):

  1. Sorry its taken me so long to respond to this post, even now I don't really have time to write deeply....but we'll see how the Lord leads and allows!

    First of all, congratulations on your first story published, Abigail. :)

    I loved where you said, that you can't think of any part of writing divorced from the characters.
    To me, everything in writing comes very much second to the characters. Characters are the very life of the story. In them is everything else bound up.

    I have a tendency to think that nit-picking writing tears it apart - it bears its naked skeleton leaving the nothing much more than bones...which aren't too attractive! :)
    I think this is what you were saying too, when you talked about dissection. :)

    Its so hard to explain how I think about writing.... I really believe that within the writer the characters live. I.E. the Lord Jesus puts them there, develops them there, and the writer becomes intimately acquainted with them - over the course of the story.
    It isn't actually a conscious knowledge of building the plot, developing characters, or writing dialogue vrs. exposition or vice versa.... it just flows.... then, after its all done, you realize 'oh! that will develop the plot...or the characters...or that's a pretty good dialogue!'

    When you know the characters they blossom on the page as easily as your own family does in person.

    One thing I must argue! :) Can I? The use of reading others' dialogue - or books for that matter - in order to learn to write. Writing is something that comes forth....there are things you need to learn that can indeed be gleaned from experiencing others' writing, but there is a grave, grave danger of imitation - I don't mean piracy, but imitation where the writer ends up writing so much like the writer they admire that they loose the voice and style the Lord has gifted them with.

    Alright! That was more than I imagined writing, but I hope it blesses and encourages the conversation! :)

    Right now I've got to scat.

    In Him;
    April

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  2. Thanks for commenting, April! You raise some very good points. I do think there has to be mental effort in the writing of a story, but at the same time, it cannot be forced. It does flow from the writer, and that part of the creative process cannot be denied. If it is, the living, breathing part that is the story will no longer be there.

    Regarding reading for inspiration, I see your point. It is possible to imitate too much and run the risk of pseudo-plagiarism. However, I think there are a number of things that prevent that from happening. First of all, when your desire is to capture the stories in your mind and to put them down on paper, I think your own writing style will naturally develop from the process no matter how influenced you may be by other authors. For instance, when I first began writing I was heavily influenced by my older sister's stories. I wanted to write like her. But I never have "written like her"; my own style has developed. It takes, I believe, a conscious effort to really imitate someone else. You will naturally show in what you write.

    Secondly, it is critical that we read a variety of authors. Much as we might admire one or two in particular, we can't limit ourselves to them - we have to expand and explore other stories, other styles. If we come to idolize a particular author - say, Dickens or Austen - then we do indeed run the risk of trying consciously to mimic them; but when we have many good writers to read, I believe they will positively influence us. There is a quote credited to Isaac Newton that is applicable: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." There are giants in the literary world, and it is good for us to stand on their shoulders.

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  3. Hey Abigail! :)

    I see your points there, and it is quite nicely put too.

    Really, I've read very little of fiction; the classics or contemporary either one. I've been writing for almost ten years, and the more I write the more I avoid reading - and even watching strong, fictional movies....

    It doesn't really have to be a conscious activity to mimic another writer, it just rubs off and colors the reader.

    But I'm sure for some it might help, though I'm inclined to believe too that one can write a very compelling, well-written novel without ever reading one for themselves.

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  4. Coming at the tail end of the conversation here :).

    First of all, I really enjoyed reading this post, Abigail :), and found it really helpful!

    I think the point you made, April, about avoiding to read and watch fiction for the sake that you don't mimic other authors, makes sense in many ways. Though for example the The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas, did much to inspire me to write a fictional story set in Ancient Rome and helped me enliven my imagination of the historical time period I was writing in, when i first started writing, my writing had strong similarities in his literary style (and since Douglas uses LOTS of adjectives in his writing I fell to doing the same thing :p). That was because I admired how captivating his book was so much that I thought to write well, that's how I should write! Slowly, I noticed what I was doing and simply put the book away to develop my own writing which I believe was an important thing to do. Abigail told me something which makes a lot of sense and I hope she doesn't mind me sharing it here :). She said while writing she tries to avoid reading a fictional work that is very similar in historical setting or genre to what she's writing during the time she works on her book, so she wouldn't be affected by the plot, characters etc of the book she's reading.

    However, without the amount of fiction (and non-fiction, for that is important too!) books I've read throughout my life, my literary skills and knowledge would be far, far under. In fact, what started me on this exciting journey of writing was through reading books of the "Greats"... The Pilgrim's Progress, The Holy War, Hinds Feet on High Places, Ben Hur and The Robe etc... I think as Abigail pointed out, not reading just one specific author but a rounded collection of the Greats will help tremendously in developing a rich, and well-rounded writing. I believe it will not rub of so much as actually enrich one's writing. If one should read a varied amount of good fiction one can glean all the gems that writers of the past (and present) had, and with it develop one's own personal style.

    I agree with you that one can very well write a great novel without reading so much from other writers, but personally I think it is a great assist as long as you don't TRY to copy them. I hope I make sense?

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  5. Hey Joy! :)

    Yes, you make plenty of sense! :) I see how reading fiction can help one write fiction, and I know that the Lord has used my own affairs with fiction to influence my writing and show me new things.

    What I meant to imply (maybe I'm the one not making much sense! :) is that reading others' work can color one's writing - like you said about how you were mimicking Douglas' way of writing. I did that myself a few years back and pernt near ruined my whole story!

    Like you mentioned Abigail saying about not reading fiction that is close to the same setting time era etc., I just broaden that to practically all fiction - primarily in the book domain - because it is so easy, especially being uncertain of oneself, to take on the habit of unconsciously copying someone else who has been successful instead of just being oneself.

    I'm not much into the 'greats' thing, if I can confess it. :) There are those who have been filthily successful in the field of writing, but all-in-all they were just normal people doing what was/is natural to them.

    I think a secret in writing is to rely on the Voice within....the One Who gives the gift is well capable of developing it.

    But everyone is different, and we all learn and grow in different ways! :)

    Love in Him;
    April

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