Friday, December 11, 2009

Conversation


"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures and conversation?"

There aren't many books with pictures unless you include children's books and coffee table books; but almost every work of fiction has to have conversation which means the writer has got to get his/her head around writing realistic dialogue.

I've had an odd journey in this discipline. Way back, when the world was young, I wrote a great many plays (all awful, I'm sure). I wrote them specifically so my class could do a play every year. I wrote so I could act. Later, I wrote several duologues for drama festivals; again so I could act. I never paid that much attention to the fact I was writing; it was just a necessary step so I could get my feet onto a stage.

When I started writing my mystery games, my first commission was for a play. I was paralyzed with fright. By this time, I had acted for years and had said some of the best dialogue ever written. Who was I to think that I could write dialogue? I muddled through, gritting my teeth and was pleasantly surprised by the finished product. My customer told me the play was a big success. I still wasn't comfortable writing dialogue. I hadn't learned to trust my acting instincts would start to scream if a line was wrong. Over time (I've written one more play and many games with 'scripted' clues) I've learned to trust.

Writing dialogue is now one of the easiest things for me to do; in fact my WIP is very dialogue-driven. I know each of my characters so well that putting words into their mouths isn't a problem. I know their rhythms and their vocabulary. I've learned to write conversations without the annoying dialogue tags but still be able to differentiate between the two conversationalists. If a third or fourth person enters the conversation then the tags start to appear.

Any writer writes with their own voice, but each character must have their own voice too. I admire writers who can create characters who use identifying phrases (Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells) and who make their characters come alive through their words rather than by description.

It may be my theatrical and debating history, but I've always been interested in what people say and how each of us choose to phrase it. Get ten people together on a sunny day and all ten will describe the day differently. Vocabulary choices reveal so much; education, history, personal prejudices to name a few.

Every character in any book is there for a specific purpose. Let each of them speak with their own voice. Your work will be richer and more realistic. Do they stutter? Do they have the unfortunate habit of dropping a malaprop? Remember as you write; these characters aren't you, they need their own voice.

32 comments:

  1. Elspeth - How very right you are about the different voices that characters have!!! As a linguist, I have to say that this is a special interest of mine, actually. Myriad factors affect the way we speak, including age, sex, socioeconomic class, ethnic/cultural background, context, and so much more. So you're right; each character needs her or his own voice. Each of us is affected differently by a constellation of these factors, and there's no reason it shouldn't be the same for characters. Thanks for pointing out a very important aspect of a believable, well-written novel : ).

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  2. Margot; I would a great deal more secure writing dialogue if I had your background! I'm sure you find it very easy. I'll have to stay leaning on my acting know-how.

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  3. I think you are very fortunate, Elspeth, to have such a rich acting background, because you know instantly if the line sounds false in someway. I'm learning to trust my instincts, too, about whether something feels right or not, in life, as well as in my writing. This is a great post.
    Karen

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  4. Excellent post. I also admire writers who have the talent to make their characters come alive through their use of speech as opposed to a heap of description. Something to aspire to for sure.

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  5. Karen; It's odd, but I never paid much attention to my acting when I was doing it; it was what I did. Trust your instincts. I'm sure you'll be great.

    Deb; Thank you for the kind words! I'm hoping dialogue works, because there's a great deal of it in my WIP!

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  6. Your background in theatre seems to have helped you, how lucky!

    I pay attention when people speak, not just listening, but tone, volume, and mannerisms. That's helped me.

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  7. Regardless of the distinct individual personalities I give my characters, I still find that I'm writing a rather mondane and boring dialogue. I need to go back and add their individual quirks and nuances to their speech and actions to give each character their own unique and diverse personality.

    Stephen Tremp

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  8. I could never become an actor, and I don´t even like hearing my own voice reading my work aloud. I think I am reasonably good at dialogue when it is characters I am familiar with (ordinary people, but not necessarily teenage speak).

    Like you, I notice exactly what people say, how they say it and what they really mean when they say it. I can´t for the life of me remember how they were dressed or what we ate, however, so this is where I have to research :D

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  9. I think you've had a really interesting life, Elspeth, as I've mentioned before. I *love* the theater, and then your games are too cool!

    Love giving my characters different voices. I may take it too far, I dunno.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  10. Carolyn; If you pay attention to details like that I'm sure your dialogue sparkles!

    Stephen; Dialogue can be tough. I'm sure with your attention to detail it comes alive.

    Dorte; I couldn't do teenage speak! I think my history has helped me with identifying rhythms but you seem to have things well in hand. Isn't it interesting the difference between what people say and what they mean?

    Elizabeth; Oh, how I wish it were true! I'm glad you like my games. I'm confidant your characters' voices come through with ringing clarity!

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  11. I've read a few books where I've had to stop to figure out who is saying what and it really distracts from the story. I enjoy writing dialogue over narrative, but I still have to go back through during rewrites to make sure I haven't made all my characters sound the same.

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  12. Jane; Isn't that annoying when that happens? I hate not knowing who's speaking.

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  13. Excellent advice and teaching here, Elspeth. As an editor I am often dismayed at how similar all the author's characters' voices and mannerisms are ... a dead indication that that's what the AUTHOR talks and act like, hmm?

    Marvin D Wilson

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  14. I love acting too, and would like to do more. I'm not that good at it, but had fun with it. I hadn't thought about that helping the writing, but I can certainly see that now. I do agree that dialogue is so important.

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  15. I am constantly observing and listening to people. Have been, since I was a kid. What people say is often different than what they do.

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  16. Sylvia; I'm sure there are several community theatre groups in your area. You should check them out!

    Elizabeth; It's so true isn't it? I've often found the differences quite startling. It's easy to talk the talk; not so easy to walk the walk.

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  17. posted and lost it! I must read everything outloud so as to avoid the dreaded voice tic bleed through. And to make sure that my idiocyncrasies aren't larding my characters' dialogue. it is a constant vigilance.

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  18. I love writing dialogue! That's when the characters really come to life - I love how the intereactions between characters reveal them, sometimes without their knowledge :)

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  19. I try so hard to do this. I don't know how successful I am.

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  20. Such great information. I agree that our characters need to be their own people, not necessarily clones of ourselves.

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  21. Lovely post.
    And I agree that conversations are the easiest to write - if you know your characters, you just have to sit back and take down what they say, don't you?

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