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He said, She said…

10

March 22, 2010 by Renee

Writing dialogue is easy. Come on, you just write the way people speak. Easy as pie. Ha! Pie is not simple and neither is dialogue.

I made April’s Writing Challenge in OFW (On Fiction Writing) about writing a scene of dialogue. Not just any dialogue though. Good dialogue. A telephone conversation. Of course we always add a twist, and this month I decided comedy would make it interesting. Indeed it did.

Since I post the challenge a month in advance, to give writers time to come up with their brilliant prose, we’ve had some early entries. I found it interesting how difficult it is for all of us to write realistic, natural dialogue. My own entry took some time to perfect. For 500 or so words, I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing and rewriting the damn thing. You see, I have a tendency to add ‘stage directions’; what a dear friend calls ‘dialogue sandwiches’. I like my tags. In fact, I love them so much that I nestle dialogue between several tags. Sometimes I make a triple-decker; tag, line, tag, line, tag. That’s a little hard for a reader to digest.

I’ll share what I wrote for the challenge, but not until I’m finished talking. Give me a break, I’m easily distracted. If you want to be a writer, you must learn patience. So don’t skip to the bottom. That’s right. I saw your finger moving to the scroll button. I’m on to you. Stay right here and let me share my recently learned skills.

So what makes good dialogue? I wish it were as simple as ‘Do this and that and it will be fantastic.’ I’m not an expert, but I’ve learned a thing or two lately and I think that other than a few glitches, (cough…punctuation) I finally have a choke hold on this dialogue thing and it’s ready to say uncle any day now.

First, pay attention to how people speak. You need to develop a sense of natural speech patterns; expressions, tone, slang, mannerisms, and then you can truly appreciate the ‘music’ of conversation. But please, remember not to give too much. You don’t want to include everything said in ‘real’ speech. That’s boring. If it doesn’t contribute to the plot, it’s not needed. The little um’s, interruptions, tangents, etc. don’t further the story and weigh it down.


Next, don’t forget that your characters are supposed to be real. If you forget, so will your reader. No amount of music will cover the unnatural feel of talking heads. Break up your dialogue now and then with action. What am I talking about? Well after a few lines of dialogue, with nothing to break them up, it’s like watching a tennis match. And about as exciting. (I’m sorry if you find tennis exciting. I don’t. So, there you have it.) Here’s an example, sans tags:

“Lou! Shoot, it’s been so long. How are you?”
“I’m good, and you?”
“Oh well, Joe went on another bender last night. Came home reeking of booze and sheep.”
“You poor dear.”
“Yes, I know. If it were another woman, I could deal with that. But the sheep…how can I compete with that?”


Funny and fascinating as that conversation is, the reader is struggling to ‘see’ what the heck they’re doing while discussing Joe’s sheep fetish. Once or twice you’ll get away with it, but eventually the reader gets weary and dizzy and puts the book down, pops a Gravol to settle their stomach and lies down. Gravol makes you sleepy. Then, they may never pick up the book again. So add some action but remember, it should add to the scene.


“Lou! Shoot, it’s been so long. How are you?”
“I’m good, and you?”
Mary sighed, her eyes downcast. “Oh well, Joe went on another bender last night. Came home reeking of booze and sheep.”
Lou’s hand fluttered to her mouth. “You poor dear.”
“Yes, I know. If it were another woman, I could deal with that. But the sheep…how can I compete with that?”


That’s not perfect, but I hope you get what I’m saying here. You can ‘see’ them talking and the scene takes on depth.


Another thing I see that drives me absolutely bonkers, (not that it’s a long trip) is dialogue that tells the entire story at once. You have to feed the reader important facts, slowly. The story should unfold naturally. Don’t have Mary meet Lou at the Supermarket and, in one conversation over the kumquats and baby squash, reveal that not only does Joe have a soft spot for barnyard critters, but he also speaks in tongues while showering, sleeps with a nightlight, and has a secret family living in Borneo and Mary is plotting to kill him and plans to bury his body in the pumpkin patch out back. These are things the reader should find out in increments, as Lou would.


Now I’m going to confuse you. After telling you to add tags, I’m going to advise you to use them sparingly. Tags pull the reader out of the scene, interrupting the flow, or the music. He said/She said tags are pretty much invisible, these can be used without being noticed most of the time. But please, don’t think this means you can add two dozen of the buggers in one page of dialogue.


This is where I became confused. How much is too much? How do I know if I don’t have enough? What if they’re doing something? I have to show who is talking and what they’re doing, don’t I?


No, you don’t have to show both. Show one. If you need to clarify who is talking, use a tag or show action. Not both. For example:


“Maybe you could get rid of the sheep.” Lou said picking up a kumquat and squeezing it and then setting it back on the pile.

That’s wrong. First of all, never squeeze a kumquat. It will bruise, making it unfit for anyone else to buy. I hate people who squeeze the produce. Second, you have two tags here when you only need one. Like this:


“Maybe you could get rid of the sheep.” Lou picked up a kumquat and set it in her cart.

Personally, I’d just use ‘Lou said,’ avoid the whole fruit issue altogether. Let’s not alienate readers.


And don’t worry about coming up with witty synonyms for said, it’s not necessary either. If you’re picking up the thesaurus to find another way to say it, don’t. Put the book down. Go back to your computer. Now, type s-a-i-d. Good. Too many ‘variations’ of a simple tag makes it as obvious as a hooker in a nunnery. You want your tags to fade into the background.


Something else I find handy is to read. Read a lot. And pay attention to what you read. Don’t just read the greats either; grab a few of the bad and the ugly too. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t for you as the reader. Make notes if you want. At some point we learn to read as a writer. We stop getting totally swept away with the story. Instead, we read with a little voice in our head running commentary. ‘Wow, how did he do that? It’s brilliant!’ or ‘Passive voice. That would have been better if…’ Not only do I read because I love it, but now I read to sharpen my skills. Try it. It’s fun. Yes, I’m lying. But it does work.

The last thing I want to address is punctuation. The rules regarding punctuation are confusing and mind boggling. God, do I know that. That’s why you should take the time to learn the basics of punctuating dialogue and do it right away. It’s really hard to break bad habits once you’ve settled in and gotten comfortable with them. I have a tendency to forget commas. (Only in dialogue though. In prose I toss them about like candy at the Santa Claus parade. Why? Who knows. I’m working on it.) I’m not going to list those rules here. I don’t want to make your head spin any more than it already is and honestly, I’m afraid someone might ask me to explain. My answer would be similar to what I’d say to the kids for questioning a rule. ‘Because I said so that’s why.’ Except in this case, it’s because the Writing Gods said so. There are excellent reference books out there, and websites and blogs that can help you grasp this part of dialogue. Go, look, read, and let me know when you’ve got a clear, ‘Punctuation for Dummies’ kind of explanation. I’d love to read that.

So, does that help? No? Well, that’s why I don’t teach. I think the best advice I’ve received about writing dialogue is to practice. Simple as that. Write it, read it aloud, listen to it, and pay attention. Record a section of dialogue while you read aloud. Play it back. Do you hear that? Clunk, clunk, clunk. That’s the dialogue not working. Now write it again, take out the parts that clunk. Record it again and play it back. Oh, my. Is that music I hear? You did it right. On to the next.

Write a scene like we did for the April challenge. A telephone conversation. Let me tell you, that’s difficult to write. You don’t have as many nonverbal cues to play with as you would writing a ‘face to face’ scene, so how you write it is very important. You can’t use the tags all willy-nilly as you know you’re tempted to do. Try it. Want to share? I’d like to read, so post what you come up with. Don’t worry, we’re all friends here. There is that handy ‘anonymous’ button too.


I’ll share first. Here’s my stab at a telephone conversation. The genre is humor. Although you can write in any genre you like, should you decide to share…

Talk to me…

“I’ve been waiting for you to call.” She purred and he loosened his belt.

“You have? Why is that?” Fred eased back on the bed, picked up the remote, and turned off the television.

“You know what your voice does to me. I get—“

Give it back! I’ll tell Mom. Mommmm!

“Do you need to deal with that?” he asked.

“No, it’s okay. You know how they carry on as soon as I get on the phone.” The line sounded muffled but he heard her next words anyway.

“If you two don’t find something else to do, and quietly, I’m going to tie you both to the tree outside. I. Am. On. The. Phone.”

“Honey, it’s all right. I’ll be home tomorrow.” Fred had looked forward to this call too, but if Julie wound up killing the kids, it wouldn’t be worth it.

“No, I want to talk to you. I’ve waited all day and I promised we would do this.” She said.

“Okay, so what is it my voice does to you?”

“Well, first my heart does that funny thing where it races in my chest and makes me dizzy.”

“Really?”

A giggle and then she cleared her throat. “Yes, really. Then I get this warm feeling in my belly, and it burns, getting hotter and moving down to my—“

Joey, you’re such a jackass. I hate you! Give it back!

Fred couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face, and he was glad he was in California while his wife was far away in Toronto. She’d kill him if she knew he found this all amusing.

“Hang on.” She set the phone down. Thuds sounded and he pictured her stomping from the bedroom and down the hallway.

“What did I tell you?” he heard her yell. Shoot, she was really pissed.

A muffled whine, Justine’s voice, and then a door slamming. Julie’s footsteps thumped back toward the phone.

“Hello?”

“Really, Julie it’s okay. We can do this—in person—tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to do this ‘in person’. Then it isn’t phone sex, is it? Then it’s just regular sex.” She had that tone to her voice, the one that told him only a stupid man would argue.

“Okay, so you were saying that you had a burning down in your…?”

“No, that’s not working anymore. Ask me what I’m wearing.”

“What?”

“Ask me what I’m wearing. Come on. I’m changing right now.”

“Er…all right. What are you wearing?” Fred picked up the remote and turned the television back on.

“Did you just turn on the TV?”

“No.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“It was already on. Here, I’ll turn it off.” Fred hit mute.

“Okay. That’s better. I want all of your attention on me.”

“It is.”

“Say it again.”

“It is?”

“No. Jesus Fred, if you won’t cooperate then this won’t work.”

“I’m trying. I’m sorry. What am I supposed to say again?”

“Ask me what—“

Mom? Oh gross! What are you doing?

“Shit.” Fred heard the door slam. Julie muttered something but he couldn’t make it out.

“Julie?”

“Yeah, Joey just came in. I need to get a lock for our door.”

“So? What’s so gross?”

“I’m naked Fred. That’s what I’m wearing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. For you, although you can’t see it. Want to know what else he saw?”

“Um…okay?”

“The Bull.”

“What bull?” Fred was lost, Julie was angry, and he was pretty sure Joey was scarred for life.

“The Bull, remember the one with the ring that goes around your—“

“No!”

“Yes, I had it in my—“

“Oh God, he saw it in your—oh no.”

“Hand. I hand it in my hand. I was getting it out and I was going to go into the bathroom.” Was that laughter in her voice?

“I thought you had it somewhere else.”

“I would have, if I’d made it to the bathroom.”

“You should go there now.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Do it.”

“Okay, I’ll see you when you get home. Love you baby.”

The phone went dead. Fred stared at the receiver in his hand and frowned. Damn kids.

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10 thoughts on “He said, She said…

  1. Rita J. Webb says:

    Great advice, Renee. I loved your post for April's Challenge.

  2. Renee Miller says:

    Thanks Rita. I had fun writing it. Although, a keen eye will see mistakes in it. I did when I posted it here, but I didn't want to change it from the original. Someone from the group would notice and call shenanigans. Punctuation…I'll nail that bastard eventually.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Renée, I like your explanations and examples. You say this isn't teaching? Well, okay then. Thank you for the precepts and examples we can all learn from. Jeanne

  4. Renee Miller says:

    Haha! I stand corrected. Thank you Jeanne. I suppose I should have said that I'm not so good at teaching…or something like that?

  5. Renee, I only read the first paragraph, but I'll be back. One issue I'd like to see addressed is writing telephone conversations, the exchange of words. I've cheated–used the speaker phone so the reader can "hear" the other side. Anyone have other suggestions?I'll be back.

  6. Renee Miller says:

    In a telephone character you have to keep it to what the POV character hears. So if the POV character is on the phone, then it's much like the dialogue above with Fred and Julie.If your POV is someone in the room, then you only use one side of the conversation, the on he hears.For example: Frank answered the phone. He rolled his eyes as he listened to the voice on the other end. You have? Why is that?” Fred smiled and eased back on the bed next to her. Sara picked up the remote, and turned off the television.She heard muffled voices through the earpiece now that it was next to her. Shouting?“Do you need to deal with that?” Fred asked. He ran a finger up Sara's thigh and winked.“Honey, it’s all right. I’ll be home tomorrow.” Fred smiled when Sara leaned over and kissed his neck.It must be his wife.Yeah, I just took that sweet little story and stomped the shit out of it. Fred turned into a jerk. Reality bites.Joking. But do you see the difference Minnie? The second is in Sara's POV, so she can only hear what he is saying.

  7. Renee Miller says:

    In a telephone character? Jeesh. Need an edit button on here. I meant conversation.

  8. I see you leaning to one side using him answering unheard, assumed comments (in this case, unwritten). What if the two-way is really important? YOu have to get that second party's comments into the story.I see no other way than to have them on a speaker phones. Oh, there's another way, have him repeat what she says and answer it. "You say what?"Silence."I can't tell you how I feel over the phone.""Yes, I agree we must meet." He sighs. "Okay, I'll see you at the Belmount Grill." He sighs again."yes, I promise."Renee, that's a pain to write. But that confusing and not very exciting.

  9. I agree, we need a spell check here and an opportunity to rewrite the post.The last sentence is "But that's confjsing and not very exciting. It's also a strain on the reader that may cause them to throw the book down.

  10. Renee Miller says:

    If both ends of the conversation are important, then write the scene in one of those POV's. Then you can have both sides. Make sense?A one way conversation is not confusing if written properly. I've never found it a strain when I've read it.

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Renee

Renee

I like to write stuff. Sometimes it's funny. I've published some novels and short fiction. I also battle an addiction to cake and potato chips, and I sometimes have inappropriate fantasies involving Kevin Spacey.

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