Writing Snappy Dialogue

Last weekend I attended Arisia, a scifi/fantasy con in Boston, and was on a panel about writing dialogue. In addition to the wonderful discussion we had, and some great questions from the audience, the other panelists and I prepared a handout for attendees that we wanted to share at large.

Here it is! And if it’s helpful, here is a downloadable PDF: WritingSnappyDialogue-Handout.


“He Said, She Said: Writing Snappy Dialogue”

Arisia 2017 – with N.S. Dolkart (moderator), Andrea Corbin, Sarah Smith, Alexander Feinman, Kate Kaynak

Dialogue is drama.

Characters’ dialogue characteristics can/should conflict with each other, just the way their ideas and emotions and opinions do. Characters should be as different in speech as they are in action. And sometimes those differing ways of communicating will cause conflict.

Let characters not listen to each other.

In real life, people often don’t reply to each other’s bits of dialogue; instead they go off on their own tangents. They might have their own agenda or inner conflict they keep worrying at instead of listening — or they may be distracted by action. The techy term for this is “talk past each other.”

  “It’s all about people talking about their own thing, talking past each other. The concept has a long literary history; see, for instance, the dialogue between Thrysymachus and Socrates in The Republic. The Chinese expression is a chicken talking to a duck.
  “Dude, have you seen my glasses?”
  “Listen to me.  I’m talking about dialogue. Which is art. You can listen without your glasses.”
   “Because seriously, man, I think the dog ate my glasses. He’s making these funny crunching sounds and coughing and stuff.”
  “My mother never paid any attention to me. No one pays  attention to me. I might as well not have a doctorate. What are you doing with your fingers down that beast’s throat?”
  “Can you get me like a couple chopsticks? Fast?”

Steal from life.

Write down things you hear around you. One good sentence can create a whole character. Listen to people! Listening to the way real people use language can shed light on different characters you may want to write.

Do your research.

Making up slang or phrasing for people who exist, now or in our past, will fall flat, and can be downright offensive. (This has different considerations in settings removed from our reality, such as secondary world fantasy characters, or distant-future scifi.)

Read your dialogue out loud, tags and all.

It’ll help you figure out where tags are needed to indicate the speaker, where they might be redundant, and of course, where your words might just sound clunky.

Note: the way you read your dialogue isn’t necessarily the way other people will read it. If you find you have to stress particular words to get the point across, and saying it “wrong” would break the meaning, the sentence probably needs a rewrite.

Leapfrog the obvious.

Not every greeting and comment needs to be on the page. You might need to write every line in a first draft, but don’t be afraid to cut the chaff and leave only dialog that moves the plot or illuminates character.

Tips and tricks to differentiate characters

  • Pay attention to sentence length and structure. This can and should be varied from character to character. Think of long run-on sentences versus pithy one-liners or fragments.
  • Different people’s voices have different rhythms. Using distinctive rhythms — think of meter and foot in poetry — helps differentiate voices.
  • What slang would a character use? What localism or colloquialism might they employ that another character never would? Listen to real people who use slang to get it right.
  • Most people don’t speak in full, grammatically correct sentences. How does your character break the rules? Do they break with modern conventions to sound historical, or the opposite?
  • Imitate style: Similar to accents is finding a piece of writing that implies a character and imitating it; this works particularly well with historical characters.  One of us based a fussy bachelor character who liked children on Lewis Carroll’s preface to Sylvie and Bruno. Mark Gatiss is a notable Victorian imitator (he’s written Victorian porn, the dear man) and did something  similar for Mycroft Holmes.

Narrative can be speech.

Certain points of view stay in the mind of a single character. If you use first person or third person limited POV, remember that everything seen directly from a character’s POV is “dialogue” and should follow this advice, too.

Things not to do

  • Overuse adverbs, AKA the infamous “Tom Swift.”  “‘I’m falling!’ shouted Tom swiftly.” Carefully-deployed adverbs can work, but improving dialogue or the narrative around it is more effective and subtle. You can write attitude better than you can describe it.
  • Accents. It can be really fun now and then to experiment with writing everybody in different accents (even Ze ‘Orrible Cliched Fransh Accent), just to see how far you can differentiate characters. It might even be useful in a first draft, to help you get into the rhythm of different characters’ voices. But be aware that this will also put a lot of readers off, obscure the content of the dialogue, and is extremely difficult to do sensitively. If you think you’ve done it inoffensively, you’re probably wrong. Strip it out before you try submitting it anywhere. Even in historical fiction, never, never, never use outdated cliches of accents or dialect that denigrate people.

Resource links

The POC Guide to Writing Dialect In Fiction (Tor.com)
The 7 Tools of Dialogue (Writer’s Digest)
9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue (The Creative Penn)
How to write dialogue and The challenge of writing good dialogue (John August, screenwriter)

 

2016 in books. A lot of books.

Excluding abandoned books, but including any re-reads I bothered to track, here are some Facts about my year in reading.

Books finished: 74

Oldest book: She by H. Rider Haggard (1887)

Read old books! They’re great sometimes. This one has magic, powerful women, pillars of fire, and immortality, as well as imperialist racism, terrible sexism, and other fun bits of black mold.

Longest book (by Goodreads page count): Dune by Frank Herbert (537). Runner-up: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (522).

Average rating: 3.87

This seems utterly absurd to me!!! That’s a really high average. Have I gotten so profligate with my star ratings? Last year I was at 3.8, which astonished me at the time. Looking back — 2014 was 3.42, and 2013 was 3.64. Maybe I’ve gotten better about dropping bad books. Maybe I’m going soft.

Rating distribution:

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 18 books
🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 32 books
🌟🌟🌟 = 21 books
🌟🌟 = 3 books
🌟 = 0 books

Phew, that’s a lot of highly rated books.

Largest divergence from average rating: -2.21 (My 2 stars up against the average 4.21 stars)

Last year, the books I read and liked more than average were interesting to me. This year they are not. This year the books I liked less are interesting, but it still feels mean to harp on that.Things are not to everyone’s tastes.

I’m thinking of trying something different next year. I might abandon Goodreads in the end, but for now I’m going to double-log. Goodreads stats are awkward to parse at the end of the year, and don’t really give me the info I necessarily want.

To come: Should I review my paltry accomplishments in reading poetry and romance? Will I come up with some other way to talk about 2016? Will I set actual reading goals for 2017 or continue to let impulse guide me? ehhh who knows.

This week in reading articles

Because I have found writing difficult lately, and I have had little interest in novels, and various other small reasons, I have been reading a lot of articles lately. Here’s another smattering of things I have been reading:

“Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don’t start burning our looms – far safer for us to set fire to one other.”
No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left, Laurie Penny

Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency
A good read. I’m excited to see what Citizen Obama does. Something about this article makes me feel like he is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

“Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided— it is intellectually bankrupt.”
— Against Bargaining, Laurie Penny

What’s Wrong with Literary Studies?
I am a recovering English major, and sometimes I have these flare-ups of interest in the academic side of things. The sort of thing discussed in this article, while perversely fascinating to me, is why I never had much interest in continuing on an academic path! Look, pals, let’s not lose sight of the fact that stories are fun. Sometimes you read Woolf because her sentences are beautiful, and sometimes you read Harry Potter to deconstruct the inequality implicit in muggle/wizard society.

“Is it worthwhile to persist in retrying to remake the world? Or, still postmodernists, do we concede that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward meliorism?”
Twilight of the Idylls, on three books about attempted utopias

Links: Sundry articles

Some things I have read recently and enjoyed deeply. Any bold emphasis in the quotes is my addition.

Ursula Le Guin Has Stopped Writing Fiction — But We Need Her More Than Ever – “Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.”

New Words Were Needed – “Another translation of ostranenie I occasionally find is “alienation,” making the familiar alien, which brings us to science fiction. Whereas modernists tend to defamiliarize at the level of the image, line, or sentence, sf writers have been in the business of defamiliarizing at the level of story since the very beginning.”

1194384Why women are leading the death positive movement – “It was not only important to us to amplify the voices of those actively creating the future of death, but also address the issues many women are facing who are confronted with the reality of ‘bad deaths’ such as femicide, victims of police brutality, reproductive rights and so much more.”

(Note: Talk to me more about women and death. Talk to me of the women who lay hands on the dead and bring them to their rest. Talk to me about the feminization of an industry being intrinsically coupled with its denigration. Talk to me about women and  our physical reality, women and bodies, women being forced to reckon with their bodies in ways that men are not, women taking that to a career that makes death familiar. Talk to me about women.)

Every Body Goes Haywire – “A migraine attack blurs the distinction between “sickness” and “health.” Headache, dizziness, nausea, trouble concentrating, fatigue, poor verbal skills—these symptoms could just as easily result from a hangover or a bad night’s sleep. That the same symptoms can result from irresponsible decisions gives patients an air of culpability.”

The Identity Politics of Whiteness – “These voters suffer from economic disadvantages even as they enjoy racial advantages. But it is impossible for them to notice these racial advantages if they live in rural areas where everyone around them is white. What they perceive instead is the cruel sense of being forgotten by the political class and condescended to by the cultural one.”

The Case Against Reality – “In contrast, you’re saying, Look, quantum mechanics is telling us that we have to question the very notions of ‘physical things’ sitting in ‘space.’”

Today: How to Survive an Anti-Feminist Backlash -“By underestimating the damage that Trump’s extremist right-wing movement is prepared to do to women’s rights, we all but ensure that damage will occur. We can’t relax, and we can’t assume that everything (or anything) will work out.”

On translation: “White Night”

It feels very silly to talk about poetry at a time like this, but of course it isn’t. I thought about looking for a poem that seemed more situationally appropriate, but you know what? This is fine. This is a Russian poet writing in the early 20th century (annoyingly, I have returned the book to the library and the internet is failing me at digging up a year for this poem) and for all that was happening, in Russia and the world, she wrote of love lost and despair. Here we go.

On a White Night, trans. Mary Maddock

I didn’t bolt the door
or light the candle.
Though tired I don’t know why
I decided not to lie down.

I am watching the spruce needles
blur in the darkening sun
and I’m getting drunk on a voice
like yours.

Nothing is any good now.
I know it. Hell is here.
I was so sure
you would have come by now.

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I can only say so much about translation of this particular poem because I neither have the Russian original on hand nor speak a lick of Russian.

In searching for a version I could copy into this post, I realized the translation I had read, from a book, was significantly different from what I found online. (And the online versions I found didn’t have translation credits, which infuriated me.) Looking at the differences in translation is another, sideways look at how translation works or doesn’t work. So let’s do this.

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http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/anna-akhmatova/white-night-2/

Web translation one: Kind of terrible! The stanzas seem mixed up. I’m not sure why they use “haven’t the strength” to go to bed, when the Maddock translation chooses “I don’t know why.” How do two translations of the same source end up so different? Which is it?

This one also moves “drunk on a voice” to the very end, which is what I mean by mixed up stanzas. And it’s your voice, not a voice like yours in this translation.

And, pettily, I think “pine-needles” is a poor choice in the face of “spruce needles.”

To sum up: This translation is weird and I deny it.

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https://americanliterature.com/author/anna-akhmatova/poem/white-night

Web translation two: This one at least seems to hew to the original’s (I’m assuming, at this point) stanza and line structure. But the choice of words changes the narrator, changes the voice and the character. Oh, she says. See, she says. Qualifying. Opening. Easing into the line. The unusual phrasing of “I’ve not” done this or that. Who says that? (Me.) No, we say “I haven’t,” so the departure says something. It feels old fashioned to me, almost staged. Or over-educated. Putting something on.

This speaker sounds more immediate, like she’s talking to someone, trying to get and keep their attention. The Oh, the See how the fields. Oh, listen to her. You know I’m too tired, you know it. Look, look at the fields with me. Be with me, right now, looking at dying light and gloom.

I’m not sure I like it.

I definitely don’t like the way the final stanza rhymes. Eugh. Inappropriate.

Anyway, in the last stanza the translator uses em-dashes. And uses them oddly, in the second line of that stanza. But I bring it up because in the book I was reading, there was an introduction. That introduction talked about each of the three poets included, their styles, and how they influenced each other and were different from each other. The translator talked about the immediacy of one of the poets, the “great poetic energy, her elliptic and staccato style.” Even in introducing her, the em-dash suddenly appeared, as though out of nowhere, and then vanished again when another poet was discussed.

The em-dash poet was Marina Tsvetayeva. So you see why I notice it in the translation of Akhmatova.

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Can we talk briefly about why I like this poem? I didn’t discover the translations, then choose the poem. I chose the poem first. I had four poems by Akhmatova marked as I read. This was the first sequentially, and I suppose that’s the reason I chose it over any of the others.

This translation chooses bolt the door, more telling, more physical, more weighty, more final than a simple lock.

In this poem, there is only one candle, one possible light, one wick against the darkness.

This poem has not sunset, beautiful and fiery, but a sun that darkens. The sun doesn’t set. It burns out and grows cold.

This poem has you not here at all, has you not even echoing; this poem has you gone, and replaced.

In this one, nothing is fine. In this one, the sentences shorten and deaden and stop for a moment, in Hell. In this one, you haven’t come, and that is the most important part, not her certainty. You haven’t come, and the night is growing dark.

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If you have thoughts on this poem, please share them! you’re probably smarter than I am.

Also, poetry recommendations are always welcome.