Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dialog--the spice to your story

In my newly restored passion for being a truly great writer, or perhaps more honestly, in my newly restored passion for reading great writers, I've come across a weakness of mine that I plan to mend. That weakness?
My dialog is not the worst that I've come across by any means, but it lacks meatiness. I spend more time in simple dialog without making much of it pack a punch. My characters tend to speak (at the most) three sentences at once. Granted, the sentences they do speak sound realistic and like real dialog, but there is a median ground between realism and monologue.
The book I am reading right now, The Gates of Zion by Brodie Thoene, is full of amazing dialog. His character's words count for something. They are not senseless babble or one-word replies. The dialog is loaded with insight, wit, emotion, and greatness. And the people generally speak more than a couple sentences. ;)
Dialog is such a fertile ground for telling a story. Giving your characters the chance to tell the story rather than you telling it yourself is effective indeed. And I want to remedy my simple little conversations and make them a bit more powerful. That is not to say I want my villain to go off on a three-page rant or my quiet little-girl character to suddenly become a great orator. But there are ways and means.
Ways and means?
Aye, ways and means. 
[Pardon my lapse into North and South there. :] I think of good dialog as having lots of conflict or emotion in it. Perhaps there are moments when you can have both. A good, riveting conversation will be like a fencing match--little thrusts and parries and poking-each-other-in-the-back. To and fros, ups and downs, steel clanking upon steel...that sort of thing. Thus far my characters' words have been effective, somewhat, but rather of the tea-party species instead of the dueling style. Now of course you don't want every conversation to be an argument, nor the quiet, sweet moments to have to have a diabolical plot and reason behind them. Let me give you a quick example of the same setting, one with polite exchanges, the other with conflict.
Let's see...the setting will be a young man trying to send a mysterious letter at a small-town post-office. The mail-girl is unduly curious and it's irritating him.

"I'd like two stamps please."
"Right. That'll be twenty-four cents." The mail-girl leaned against the counter and held her hand out, palm-up.
He fished around in the depths of his suit-pocket and brought out a dusty quarter. "Here. Keep the change."
"Thanks." The quarter landed with a glittering rattle in the cash-register. The mail-girl took a penny out and weighed it in your hand. "Who's it to?" She indicated the letter in the young man's hand and smiled, curious.
"My grandmother."
"She lives in Germany? Wow. That's a long way. Funny. You don't look German." She squinched up her nose and tilted her head, taking in every dark feature of the man before her. "You look Italian to me. Are you sure the letter's for your grandmother? I'd bet this penny it's your girl-friend." She laughed archly and tossed the penny in the air.
"Listen, missy. I haven't got all day. I'll just send this myself if you please." The young man swept out of the post office and dropped the letter in the mailbox, careful to hurl it into the very depths of the blue-tin box.

Right. So that's the polite conversation there. Just the bare minimums to show the guy was getting irritated. Here's how I'd rather write my dialog:

"Two stamps. And hurry--I've got a train to catch." The young man scanned the room with his burning, dark-eyed gaze, as if searching for something.
The mail-girl pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. "Right. That'll be twenty-four cents.
"Don't know why postage has gotta' cost so much these days," he mumbled, fumbling in his pocket for change. He brought out a quarter. "Here, keep the change. Who knows? Might be a lucky penny...though in that case I could use the luck."
"Oh? Who's your letter to? Bet it's your girl-friend." The mail-girl leaned over the counter and peered at the address.
He pointedly covered the direction with his hand and licked the stamps, keeping his eyes fastened on the envelope. "It's to my grandmother for your information. Don't know what business it is of yours, though."
She crossed her arms and drummed her fingertips along them. "Huh."
He glanced up and rolled his eyes at her offended interest. "Listen, honey. It's to my ailing grandmother...in Germany. 'Kay? She's sick."
The girl's eyes brightened. "Funny. You don't look German...your nose is too big and your eyes are too dark."
"Hey, tootsie, this isn't a beauty pageant. Can't blame my parents for my looks."
She continued, undaunted. "You look Italian to me. Are you Italian?"
"Maybe that's why I love spaghetti." He clenched his jaw and licked the last stamp, then whirled around. "Listen, missy. I haven't got all day. I'll send this later."

See the difference? I personally would rather read the second example in a book. :) Any great tips for writing dialog? Let me know! ~Rachel


Carilyn said...

I actually kind of liked the first example better. There were some benefits to the second, I suppose, but it seemed more rushed. The second also seemed more chunky and like there wasn't as much suspense. Not to discourage you, but rather just telling you that you aren't doing too bad if the first is how you usually write. ;)

I have always had a knack for writing dialogue, I think. Not necessarily that it's always good dialogue, but rather just that I'm not really shy about writing dialogue. And as I've gotten older, it might've changed a bit, but when I was little, my stories definitely didn't lack in that regard! =)

I guess one tip would just be to keep it unique. You don't have to have all the characters speak the same amount as each other. So you could have a variety. Examples:

1. Quiet person, speaks very little, but has strong opinions. When they speak, you should listen.

2. Loud and annoying, always saying anything that comes to mind.

3. Quiet, but speaks up often in certain circumstances to try to get attention.

4. Talks a lot but makes good points.

5. Quiet, speaks infrequently, uses big words

6. Speaks often, uses small words


Have a great day!!


Abigail said...

Haha! Take #2 cracked me up! "Maybe that's why I love spaghetti." Brilliant. :D

Unknown said...

I love the Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles series!!

Morgan said...

Hehe, that was great. I especially liked the part were she's trying to read the address, and he covers it up while licking the stamps;)But, like Carrie, I like both!