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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dialogue: Not What It Seems

You’ve probably heard that you should write like you speak. That may or may not be good guidance in general. However, it is terrible advice when it comes to writing dialogue. Actual conversation transcribed to the page doesn’t work.

Speech is disjointed, repetitive and hesitant. When I have a conversation with my wife, we talk on top of and past each other. I pretend to listen, and she usually catches me at it. We leave incomplete thoughts hanging, and our words sometimes just trail off. None of this makes for good reading.

To work on the page, only the most telling bits of a conversation should appear. Repartee is cleverer, putdowns more devastating and comebacks more pointed.

For reading ease, the writer needs to underplay accents and dialects on the page, even if they are important for developing a character. Also, a practiced writer controls the pace of the story with dialogue. More dialogue quickens the pace. More description slows the pace, allowing the reader to catch her breath.

A skilled writer uses dialogue to develop characters. If a character is stupid, or corrupt or compassionate, it shows in the dialogue. Emotions and motives spring to life in the dialogue. For the writer, dialogue is the place to discover the quirks, flaws and foibles of the characters. None of this happens if the writer behaves merely as a stenographer. When it comes to dialogue, good writers muster their best craft and cunning.

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