Friday, 18 June 2010

And Then She Said to Me...

I seemed to spend a lot of the last post talking about dialogue, so I thought it was worth covering specifically. If you hadn't already guessed, I love dialogue. In fact, it's only recently I've really started to consider myself a children's author rather than just another frustrated screenwriter. Not being blessed with a particularly visual imagination, I find that it's the dialogue that gets written first, not the description. Even for my new book - which is at the intensive planning stage - I keep breaking off from my synopsis to scribble choice bits of pithy speech.

I've previously poked fun at writers who don't have control of their own plot but I'm probably just as guilty with dialogue. I love the way that you can start a character off saying something and then the other characters will run with it, often to surprising ends.

When I pick up a book in a shop or critique another writer's manuscript, I'm always magnetically attracted to the dialogue. For me, it breaks down into three (totally arbitrary) categories:

  • Awkward Dialogue
    Welcome to a whole world of wincing. This kind of dialogue doesn't crop up much in published books (though there's a perverse pleasure when it does) but we've all seen it and probably written it at some point.
    • How to spot it
      People don't speak like anyone you've ever met or would like to meet. Sometimes they don't actually speak like humans, and you wonder if the manuscript fell out of a multi-dimensional rucksack owned by some day-tripper from Alpha Centauri. If two or more "humans" are involved in the conversation, they will either talk as if they are completely ignoring the other person, or dive headlong into the minutiae of everything they have both done since breakfast.
    • Suitability for purpose
      Maybe if you have to write a script for Keanu Reeves, otherwise avoid.

  • Functional Dialogue
    This encompasses a good 60 - 70 percent of the dialogue you find in books, films and TV. It does the job, moves the plot along and makes you imagine that the characters are having an actual conversation. It's never exactly exciting, but also doesn't spoil the party for anyone.
    • How to spot it
      People talk like actual people, except there are less pauses, repetition and banality. Try to imagine being able to rewind your life and edit out the really dull conversation you had with that guy who works across the corridor.
    • Suitability for purpose
      Eminently suitable, especially for a book that is primarily voice and description driven, where more baroque dialogue might prove distracting.

  • Musical Dialogue
    I suppose this category might also be called "stylised." Musical dialogue moves beyond what people really sound like and into how they should sound. It's showy, ornate and attracts attention to itself like Lady Gaga at a PVC industry conference. Needless to say, I rather like musical dialogue.
    • How to spot it
      People talk like their whole lives are one glorious verbal tennis rally, batting sentences back and forth in dizzying, occasionally breathless fashion. They will always have a perfect comeback and it will always be delivered with spot-on timing.
    • Suitability for purpose
      Treat with care. Sometimes, one verbal musician is quite enough (this is your Sue Sylvester character, right here). However, two or more sharp talkers in one scene can be rather glorious. Like any orchestra, you need to differentiate accents and speech patterns to deliver a lush melody and not a honking mess.

So, those are some categories that I thought up on the way home - rule breaking is always encouraged. I'm a big, big fan of Victoria Wood - her musical dialogue is often constructed so that the characters are effectively monologuing, but their lines of speech overlap to incongruous and humorous effect, building to a crescendo of comedy. It seems chaotic, but is actually very tightly written - see Dinnerladies for glorious proof of this technique.

I will also admit to being influenced by the snappy, witty ensemble dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Frasier. Ditto The West Wing, which is dense in dialogue, political complexity and downright smartarsery.

Hell, let's all embrace smart, eloquent characters - especially if we can put them in a scene with a complete dumbass and watch them become increasingly exasperated!



  1. I love the craft of good dialogue and it's not easy. Writing dialogue is definitely one of the moments when you have to sit back, become invisible and allow your characters to speak for themselves. It's often surprising what comes out. I love it when strong dialogue allows secondary characters to really shine. Great post!

  2. Dialogue is what I spend the most time editing. I bet someone's written books on it - No I'm not going to go off and google-trawl then come back with names and titles. I'm too busy editing dialogue.
    This came in hand tho

  3. Oh I need to work on this all the time!
    Despite being a jabberjaw myself, I'm not yet that good at getting different voices right.
    'Honking mess' sums mine up pretty much.
    Good post, Nick.