Monday, July 27, 2009

Dialogue...Let's Talk About It (part II)

Below is a bit more 'schtuff' from others regarding dialogue.

Elizabeth Bowen's Rules of Dialogue:

  • Dialogue should be brief
  • It should add to the reader's present knowledge
  • It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation
  • It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk
  • It should keep the story moving forward
  • It should be revelatory to the speaker's character, both directly and indirectly
  • It should show the relationships among people

A few extra points that I could squeeze from my class notes...

  1. One thought at a time.
  2. Over three sentences per speech runs into danger.
  3. If dialogue does run into speech, break it up with interruptions by other speakers, by actions, or thoughts, or convince the reader the speech is important.
  4. Dialogue should allow the reader to read as much as possible between the lines, in what is left out, and in the stage directions, actions, and gestures that accompany the dialogue.
  5. One of the most important purposes of speech is to express character.

As I was typing out #3 on the list, I got to thinking of when I was a teenager and read '1984' by George Orwell. Early on in the story a character, a political leader I think, goes into a long speech to give us an idea of their futuristic environment. The speech must have went on for at least 14 or 15 pages and I almost put the book down. Luckily, I am a patient man and the wait paid off.

Has anyone else got to the point of giving up on a book as a result of cumbersome dialogue?


Rebecca Nazar said...

I read an Alice Hoffman novel, can't recall which one, that seemed entirely dialogue. Tough.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading the Brian Lumley Necroscope books, and they're fine, except every so often two characters will settle down to re-explain some metaphysical concept to each other, or debate a scientific principle and I just have to zone out.

Aaron Polson said...

Oh yes. Dialogue that runs for pages with very little "meat" is maddening. Those rules are fantastic, and the follow the general rule of "if it isn't important to the story, cut it out".

Aaron Polson said...

I should add, I salute your use of the non-word "schtuff". It's even fun to say.

katey said...

Seconded on the "schtuff".

I'm sure I've been annoyed by long pointless speeches, yes. My friend was actually just here re-reading my Anne of Green Gables books and she came out of the bedroom in the morning going, "She talks too much. No one gives speeches like that. It's insane!"

Not to be rude, but it does come off as a bit of a wank when people go on like that, doesn't it? I love it so long as it follows those rules, though!

I went to a workshop on dialogue at the conference in Pittsburgh that was pretty good. You've inspired me to finally put together my notes from the experience in some coherent form.

Natalie L. Sin said...

No, but I can see how it would drive one crazy. And here I was feeling bad when I go a few sentences over!

Akasha Savage said...

Hi Alan. I've also read '1984' and can remember he speech you mention, and it almost made me put the book down too. On the other hand, in Stephen King's book 'IT', there is a section of dialogue that lasts five or six pages, and it is highly readable and interesting and moves the story on. So there's obviously a knack.

K.C. Shaw said...

I don't think I've ever put a book down due to the dialogue (even 1984, but I bet I skimmed the speech because I don't remember it), but very few things are worse than badly written dialogue. I like your notes; thanks for sharing them.

Alan W. Davidson said...

Rebecca - I don't think that a novel of mostly dialogue would keep my attention. Im too visual and would require a lot of desriptive passages.

Anton - I bet those metaphysical discussions could be a tad dry.

Aaron - "If it isn't important to the story, cut it out". I as guilty as hell at having wasteful 'shtuff' in my writing...

Katey - It's funny that the story at Every Day Fiction today is getting a lot of complaints about the fact that the story's dialogue exists only to convey the scientific ideas between the main characters. No tension, total agreement.

Natalie - You can use as many sentences as you want, you know that I would read it anyway.

Akasha - Hey, welcome! Some of Stephen King's earlier books were so engrossing he could have been conveying a broccoli quiche recipe and he would have held my attention.

KC - I have a book published locally set about 100 years ago and the dialogue seems as if written by a Jr. High school student. Surely someone of importance had to notice that and insist on editing...guess not.