Monday, May 16, 2011

Dialogue: Who’s Talking Now?

What I’m reading: Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith; Thrilled to Death, by L.J. Sellers.

First: Thanks to all who bought copies of WHATS IN A NAME? I’ve made my donation to my daughter’s fund-raising efforts for Team in Training.

Next: Check the “Deals and Steals” tab – Smashwords has a big sale featuring members of the Backlist eBooks group, and I’m pleased to be among them. Some of these authors are multi-award winners, and best selling authors, so even if you’re not looking for one of my books, there are some fantastic books out there.

And thanks to Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress for her review of WHERE DANGER HIDES.

As I write this, last Thursday still doesn’t exist according to Blogger. Maybe they’ll find my post, or maybe I’ll repost it another day.

I’m going to be leading a workshop—I hesitate to say “teaching” since I’d like it to include input from the participants—on dialogue basics for Savvy Authors. It starts on May 30th and will run through June 27th. There’s a sign up link in the sidebar.

Here's a secret – handling dialogue almost stopped me from becoming a writer. But wait, you're saying. Didn't you just say dialogue came easy?

Hearing dialogue was easy. Thinking dialogue was easy. But when I sat down to try to write a story that had been rolling around in my head, I found that typing dialogue was a royal pain. There were rules. Where did the punctuation go? I got so bogged down in remembering that you needed a comma and quote marks before the tag (not that I knew it was called a tag then), that I couldn't write the story. All that "shift" key stuff made writing a chore. The stories could stay in my head, where there wasn't anything complicated to remember.

But I still had voices and stories in my head. Later—much later—I gave it another shot. This time, I plugged away until the mechanics became second nature. And I didn't worry so much about getting all those pesky punctuation bits in the right place until I went back to edit.

As a beginner, all my characters sounded the same, and far too much like me. I had to learn to 'translate' what they were saying into what would work on the page. You see, dialogue isn't "real" speech, but it has to sound like real speech.

Why is dialogue important? Half you manuscript might be dialogue. Dialogue will bring your characters to life, and without believable characters, you're going to lose readers. And, if you're submitting to agents or editors, they're going to look at dialogue. They may not even read your "story", but rather flip to a dialogue-filled page in your submission and see if you've handled it well.

What are they looking for?
They'll want to see how you handle speaker attributes (tags). Do you have passages of spitfire dialogue? Informative dialogue? Interrupted dialogue? Journalistic dialogue? Is it commonplace? Melodramatic?

As I work on my “lectures” for the workshop, I would rather address topics that are of interest to the group. Even if you’re not going to participate, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned about dialogue? What sorts of things do you think writers ought to know? All suggestions welcome!

Tomorrow, my guest is Kathryn Scannell, who’s going to tell us what it’s like to be part of the official response to an environmental disaster. A timely topic to be sure.


Jan Morrison said...

I found my 'lost' post on my edit posts page. Maybe yours is there too.
I'm with you on all the punctuation madness around dialogue - lots of folks ignore the rules and do it there own way. As long as it is clear to the reader and not so weird it disturbs the fictive dream, I think it is OK.
But that's just me, a comma phobe.
Jan Morrison

Anonymous said...

As a writer AND an editor, the bane of my existence is dialogue tags. I prefer to use action beats to reorient the reader as to who's talking and also keep the scene fluid. But not everyone likes to write in this style. I'd love to see dialogue tags addressed, though because the house I edit for hates them and many of the authors I edit love them, especially some really unusual and archaic ones.

Terry Odell said...

Jan - last I looked, no Thursday. :-) If readers are "trained" in the way to interpret dialogue, then steering away from the basics can lead to confusion.

Kay - I do have a lesson or two planned on dialogue tags and beats. Maybe some will be converted away from te 'clever' tags.

Wynter said...

When an author does dialogue badly, it really ruins the book for me, even if the story is great. And tagging dialogue seems to confound so many newer writers. Sounds like a worthwhile class.

Terry Odell said...

Wynter - yes, if characters don't sound right, it's a tough read. And if the reader can't follow it, it become work to read the book, and nobody wants that.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sounds like a great class!

I love dialogue, but it has to move the story forward somehow or provide some insight into the characters. Otherwise, it's just not entertaining.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - definitely. Although I'd say dialogue might be entertaining, but if it's not moving the plot, it's going to get old fast.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm sure your class will be great. I find on first drafts I have a lot of banter - some of it really cool banter I think - but so much of it has go.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - so true. One of my early crit partners used to yell at me for spending too much time letting my characters talk to each other. But I loved putting them in a room or somewhere and letting them talk.