Thursday, September 9, 2010

A really catty remark

I will now try to get two requests into the same post - cats, and dialogue. Alright, I admit, the cats will only be there for examples. This post isn't about cats, and I apologize for deceiving you.

Dialogue is good. Remember this, and if you haven't read the short story "Hills like White Elephants" by Hemingway, do so. That's a fine example of how you can keep a story going through dialogue alone.

When I say dialogue is good I mean it's a great tool for developing your story, yet often - it seems - left unused! Through dialogue you have the perfect opportunity to reveal characters' personality, to relate backstory, to develop both plot and characters. It gives a welcome relief from extensive - however lovely - descriptions, can add humour to a serious situation and also relate descriptions ("Does it always rain this much?" "No, just when you're around. You should come by more often, the grass is all withered. My pansies are thoroughly dead.") We learn through conversation in real life, and so does your reader and your character (through the dialogue in your story). Obviously, dialogue shouldn't be used for info-dumping. Everything you write need to come naturally from the context of the scene.

I love to use dialogue to show off my characters, and I often figure out their personality in the way they react to others. Their language, use of words and what they say (about themselves, others and the surroundings) explain a lot. Anna Gavalda actually writes out her characters not talking in an empty "talk slot" (my knowledge of professional words for these things are abysmall and I apologize. Feel free to add the right terms) which gives a sense of what the person holds back. What we don't want to say, say a lot (see my post about characters).

As example, you have a character of a passive agressive type. This is how you show and don't tell, using dialogue.
"We should spend christmas at my parents this year."
"You were the one not wanting to spend thanksgiving at their's instead of at your brother's. We talked about this, for Christ's sake!"
"Sure. Whatever."

The example was a very clean-cut case with no added text. Most dialogue is improved by the right amount of descriptions, "talk line" (i.e. 'he said with a sneer') and action segments. There's a world of difference between "I saw your mother today." and "I saw your mother today," Benny-the-Bully said and leered insinuatingly.

Or, using the previous example:
"We should spend christmas at my parents this year," she said cheerfully.
The cuttlery tinkled against glass as I froze, the dish water having the same effect on my skin that my wife's words had on my manlihood.
I saw her brow crease as she turned her attention towards me. The sun had faded and I realised just how far into autumn we were and how soon Christmas would arrive.
"You were the one not wanting to spend thanksgiving at their's instead of at your brother's. We talked about this, for Christ's sake!"
"Sure. Whatever."
I fished the butcher knife from the water and began to rinse it. The edge was dull; I would need to sharpen it.

I must admit, I often take the easy way out. How? you might wonder. I keep my character count down. Handling many characters at once is taxing, especially in dialogue. You need to be more specific in your "talk lines", in your naming of characters (if you have four "he" discussing wildly, it'll get messy) and when you have dialogue without talk lines, it must be obvious through what is said (or the surrounding text) who is doing the talking. One trick I use is to mention the person talking as the last thing before the dialogue - or as the first thing right after.

The garden reverberated with growlings from the eight kittens. Mandy, the youngest, didn't know how to get up into the apple tree and watched it thoughtfully.
"What now?"
Whiskers came to her side, abandoning the patch of dirt in which he had been lapping sun for half an hour.

Dialogue isn't perfect. We - at least not I - don't have everything perfectly in our heads before we start saying things. We can't add all the "uhm"s and broken sentences that exist in real life, but we should not forget it in the story. Nor do we stick to the same subject - a friend once told me how he never got around to saying witty things because before he had phrased it in his mind, people had gone off talking about other things. Writers are allowed artistic liberties, but perfect conversation will ring false. Besides, unclear statements, interruptions and sidetracks are perfect ways to propel your story forwards and make for hilarious - or sad - situations.

This is a perfect conversation (and an imperfect way to write):
Catty the cat sat on the mat, just around the corner from the livingroom.
"Hey, James, I think Catty is gone, we can go to the kitchen to steal cheese right now."
"Great idea, July! We take the long way and crouch behind the threshold. We will be in the kitchen through the hole beside the stove in ten minutes!"
"Yay, cheese! Let's go."

No, they will not handily use each others' names. They probably both know how long it'll take and don't need to say it. James is likely to only say "follow me" and then explain as they go. July knows James and might just wiggle a mousy eyebrow to suggest the cheese stealing by saying "we can do you know what". I think this way of building up a conversation - based on the fact that your character (Catty's POV) must know things - for cheating. It feels unnatural. Nathan Bransford have some opinions on stilted dialogue as well.

Dialogue happens in almost every story. It should come naturally, help the story in some way (character development, propelling plot forwards or relating background/setting) and be pinned on someone (unless the whole point is that someone says something and the POV doesn't know who said it - but I won't go into that). I had never dug deep into the art of creating dialogue until I received the request of writing a post about this subject, but in the future I'll definitely pay more attention to it. After all, it deserves to be noticed, and it pays back to give it due credit.

What tricks do you use to hold up a natural conversation in your story? Do you have any mistakes/tips to share? How do you use dialogue to get your characters and their stories where you want them?


  1. Because great minds think alike, Nathan Bransford just posted a new blog post about dialogue (longer than the one I linked to in the text). The same day! Beat that, Coincidence!

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for the advice. I'm so glad you got around to the dialogue post. :)