Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Three Paragraphs - Dialogue

The third sort of paragraph necessary to writing fiction is dialogue.


Dialogue is a strange and fragile thing.  Except in a few instances, it can't quite stand on its own.  There needs to be a little bit of action or dsecription in order to at the very least identify who is speaking.  However, too much of either will bury the voice of the character under the voice of the narrator.



Human speech in reality is a cluttered, impromptu and often imprecise.  We speak in half-sentences.  We walk over each other's words and complete each other's thoughts, sometimes incorrectly.


Compare the dialogue in a TV drama with the dialogue on something akin to the Jerry Springer Show.  Or a documentary to a cinematic movie.


The professional actors speak slower than we do naturally and enunciate clearer.  They appear to interrupt each other, but in reality, those interruptions are carefully practiced to make sure the character being interrupted gets out the point that the story needs her to.  Even people that stutter do so in a way that makes it more or less clear as to what they are trying to say.


In real life, people speak much faster and are often muttering or otherwise speaking unclearly.  Interruptions run over the other speaker carelessly or purposefully and often make it hard to understand either person.  Accents and speech impediments are much more apparent and problematic.


It is pretty much the same in writing.  In some cases an author will want to phonetically write out the dialect or accent of a character, but except in cases where the author wants to make the character's meaning unreadable, the actually accent is toned down so that the words are understandable. In most cases, the accent is only described in the narrative.


Even if two characters are talking over each other, their words are clearly written out for the reader, or at least as much as the writer feels they need to know.  In the story, the character's might have trouble understanding each other in the clutter of sounds, but the reader is spared that.


Also, in some cases, dialogue seems to take no time at all to happen.  If an author wants a particular point to be made in the middle of a scene, even if something time-dependent is happening during the speech, the author essentially hits a pause button so that the story-relevant points can be made between the characters.


Dialogue falls between action and description on rhythm and overlaps with both of them.  In some cases dialogue is short, single syyllable exclamations.  In other cases, they're long, slow and sonorous lectures or monologues.


Dialogue is not really separated on anything uniform except where the person speaking changes.  When a speaker changes, the paragraph changes and that is almost always a given.  If you put two separate characters speaking on the same line of a page, then the readers will get somewhat confused as to who is saying what.  If that is your intention, then fine.  However, it will stop the pace of reading for many people and make them stop and try to figure out what is going on.


However, when you have one particular character speaking for a long time, you might want to break up their dialogue before someone else takes over speaking.


If you want to show case someone who rambles on and on without pausing for breath except rarely, then you are likely to only separate out dialogue when that speaker is stopped in their speech, or else the narrative lets them run on without highlighting specific words any longer.


If you want to address the urgency of a situation, you will tend to stop most of your dialogue with short single sentences and sometimes not even that much.  This emphasizes that the characters are too busy to both form and express complex thoughts.


For my part, I like to separate the paragraphs at the point I envision a character taking a breath, if I have one person taling for an extended time.  I will break up the monologue with descriptive and action paragraphs to show the speakers expression or small gestures as he talks, and spread out the dialogue between those paragraphs.


If you feel that the narrative voice needs to have more than half a sentence that is basically just an identifier for who is talking and their tone of voice, then I usually try to split that off into a new paragraph and come back to the dialogue afterwards.


Think of the narrative as another character, even if it is third person.  You don't want two characters speaking at the same time in the same paragraph.  It confuses the reader and muddles a lot of the personality of the speaking character.


That is what I meant by dialogue being fragile.  If you try to combine it with too much of the narrative, then the words of the character are lost.  Even if the reader knows what they are, they're buried under the Narrator's accompanying explanation.  Separating out the narration from the dialogue lets the reader "chunk" the information of one paragraph and keep it separate from the rest.


Dialogue is very useful in a story as it lets the author give information and make points without relying on the narrator's voice to do it all.  There are certainly stories that are told entirely by the narrator, with no real specific dialogue, but dialogue allows the personality of the character to shine through.


Word choice and grammar structure are very important tools to defining the way a character thinks.


Think of the malapropisms in Shakespeare plays were a foolish character will use long and impressive sounding words, but do so in such a way that they quite clearly have no understanding of what the words mean or how they are supposed to be used.  Or think of the worldly wise cowboy in Westerns who express complex thoughts and philosophies with simple, small words carefully chosen.  Or the nerd who uses impressively technical jargon and describes things very exactly or precisely.


Providing the reader with information and glimpses at the speaker's personality, those are the main purposes for dialogue in a story.

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