Talking the Talk

“Alright everyone, if you could just take your seats then we can get this started. So, can anyone in class tell me what they think makes effective dialogue? Hmm? What do you feel works and what doesn’t work for dialogue in writing? Come on, don’t be shy. Yes, Mr. Miller, what are your thoughts?”

“Well, in my writing I used to start or end every spoken bit with ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ but it seemed really repetitive.”

“Ah, the use of identifiers! Was there something that inspired your stance on the matter?”

“I guess it started when I first read Ernest Hemingway. It felt like in The Sun Also Rises there was alot of conversations, but he didn’t use those identifiers very often.”

“And yet you still knew who was speaking, didn’t you? That’s the power of using context to identify your characters. If you want an exaggerated experience, with little to no identifiers, try reading No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. A very unique experience in my opinion. What else? Yes, Miss Atwood?”

“What if there are, like, tons of people talking all at once? Don’t you need ‘he said/she said’?”

“Not always. I’m not entirely discouraging the use of identifiers, don’t get me wrong. They are often quite appropriate for various situations, but the can be a crutch that bogs down the flow of reading. One effective tool to help your reader distinguish the various characters in a dialogue is the use of unique syntax.”

“Umm, like, what’s a syntax?”

“Perhaps Mr. Perrelli would like to join our discussion and expound on syntax. Yes, welcome back to the conscious world. This is not nap time. Please, Mr. Perrelli, explain to Miss Atwood the effects of syntax on dialogue.”

“Sure, yeah. No sweat, prof. Syntax is like the way peoples put their words together in a sentence. So, if you’re from the south and gots a funny way of talking, it can show in your syntax.”

“Or if you’re from Brooklyn, it would seem. Not an entirely kosher explanation, but it serves our purposes today. Think of it like this, if I were to say, ‘Know me by my words, you do. A different way of speaking, I have. Size matters not.’  you immediately recognize the character as Yoda. A writer would almost never have to tag on, ‘said Yoda’ to something Yoda says because it would be clear as daylight! His syntax is that unique and recognizable. You too can create characters with unique ways of speaking!”

“I totally get it! So, if I had a guy that talked like Christopher Walken, that’d, like, be his syntax.”

“Close. You’re almost there. Just because someone has a specific way they sound, even if it’s a character in your head, that doesn’t always translate to the written word. Penning someone with an Australian accent is more than just spouting the phrase ‘shrimp on the barbie’ and hoping your readers are hearing the same voice you are. It involves the overall choice in wording as well as sentence structure. And of course, much research in the accent you’re gunning for. Beyond accents, you can also give the reader a huge sense of a character’s background. Are they well read and grammatically correct? Is their verbosity so veraciously vivacious and vibrant that it stands vigil to their very vaudevillian vanity? Or do the words they speak lend towards a simple, straight forward way of thinking? Do they even fully speak the words, or cut them short when they’re talkin and goin bout their work?”

“I gotcha, Prof! Dialogues is like a script. We write the story parts, but the characters write the talking parts. Not every character is gonna be written the same. The viva-verb-vanity guy isn’t gonna suddenly say, ‘Aww crap! This sucks wads’.  Plus, the more different a guy talks, the easier it is to pick him out of a bunch of dialogue.”

“Well said. Variety is the spice of character dialogue. Hark! My good students, heed my warning. Playing around too much with syntax or going too far can be very objectionable. I call it the Jar Jar Binks effect!”

“Like, OMG, total nerd alert.”

“Does anyone here care for Jar Jar Binks? No? Not one? Part of it is because he has so alienated the audience by his manner of speaking. A character can become so utterly involved in their unique way of speaking that it actually distracts from the story and disengages the reader. Someone who seems to know just how far to push unique syntax choices would be Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series. Very unique dialects and very funny.”

“But, like, what if I want the dialogue to sound real? I don’t do that fake accent, nerd stuff. I want totally realistic conversations.”

“A valid point as there is a very large audience for that. In fact, I would hazard that most fiction is done in this manner. There are several excellence exercises that will help you tune into ‘realistic’ conversations and how to artificially create them. One is to simply pay attention to the conversations around you and to the very ones you conduct. Another is to pick your favorite shows, ones that have dialogue and characters that you adore, and watch it with the closed captioning on. It will help you to make that link between the thing heard and the thing read. One show that I think did especially well when it comes to witty and glib dialogue was Gilmore Girls. I don’t know if I can readily be called a fan of the show, but I did appreciate the caliber of writing involved in the dialogue.”

“That show is soo seven years ago.”

“Yes, that is why it is on Netflix.”

“They spoke, like, hella fast too. Like, cocaine fast.”

“Thus the recommendation for closed captions.”

“I think at the end, she totally went for Jess. I have this idea that -”

“Which brings me to another aspect of realistic dialogue. People generally don’t spend five minutes at time spewing words from their face unless they are giving a speech. Speeches should be used sparingly in dialogue.”

“You said it, Prof. Maybe you should, ya know, be done with yours.”

“Dialogue is an exchange. Turns must be taken.”

“Yeah, and turns should be over by now, Prof.”

“It is much like a conversation ball being tossed between two people.”

“-and he’s, like, in his bookshop when she shows up. And they see each other and just know, cause they were totally meant to be-”

“Or tossed between some and bounced off of the unaware.”

“Yeah, and sometimes a guy doesn’t know when to give up the ball. Amiright?”

“Of course, if you’re doing a period piece, one should consider…”

“Oh jeez.”



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