Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Dialogue Albatross

Dialogue is my albatross.
My own, personal albatross. I think I'll name him Henry.
Seriously. Words contained between double-quotes feel like they are slung around my neck right before I plunge into the watery abyss of writing.
Sometimes, when I feel like I’m successfully treading those artistic waters -- writing without pause, feeling like the crazy plot living in my head might turn into a story – the dialogue emerges from the depths. The damned spoken words, neatly packaged in those double-quotes wrap themselves around my neck and tug me under the surface until, desperate for air, I gulp mouthfuls of cold, salty writer’s block and sink below the surface.
Is there a life vest for writers? Do they sell those on the internet?
But I digress…
I was prompted to write today about dialogue because of the book I’m reading at the moment. It is a YA novel – a first novel for this author – published a few years ago. An adventure story full of possibilities. A journey, a kidnapping, murders, magic spells, mysterious symbols and dusty libraries. What’s not to like, right?
Well… I’m nearly finished with the book and I’ve decided I need to study this writer’s dialogue. Like me, I think she must find writing dialogue a mostly painful experience. Or that is how her characters speak: as if their writer was struggling for her life, trying to find something (anything!) for them to say to each other that might (maybe!) sound like spoken words.
Her characters say things that sound out of place, especially considering the emotion or tension of the scene. I’m hesitant to provide direct quotes here as examples because I believe strongly in supporting writers on this blog – not being a scratchy, prickly critic. Instead, I will say there are lots of exclamation marks when her characters speak. And they are often “overheard” saying things like, “So, what’s been going on?” to each other in the middle of a journey to the villain’s lair.
But that’s the rub with dialogue, isn’t it? Trying to make talking sound like real talking is so very hard. Dealing with those moments when, in real life, we would make idle chit-chat, can kill a scene. That albatross could peck out your eyes as quick as a wink as you try to show tone and volume with punctuation.
Desperate to find a life preserver, I googled “unrealistic dialogue” and found some helpful thoughts from other writers. Check these out:
Oh – and one more observation about dialogue from my erstwhile YA author: Don’t try to introduce coinkidinky plot devices via dialogue.
For example, if the world in which your characters live is full of horses and wagons, ink-drawn parchments, and no technology more sophisticated than a wheelbarrow, please don’t suddenly have a character exclaim, “Why are these letters on this parchment printed so perfectly? It’s almost like they were printed by…a machine!” 
To which a supporting character suddenly replies, “Oh yes! We discovered that document 30 years ago and we think it was printed … on a machine!”
Yeah. Don’t do that. It’s a teensy bit jarring to the reader. Even with the albatross of my own slung haphazardly across my shoulders, I hope I can stop myself using bad dialogue as a vehicle for coincidences that pull together an otherwise holey plot.
What about you? Any difficulties with writing dialogue? Or have you read any particularly great (or horrible?) dialogue lately? Please share!
In the spirit of constantly honing our craft – leave a comment below to enter your name for a chance to win a brand new copy of Seize the Story by Victoria Hanley.
It is a handbook for teens and writers who write for teens – with a whole chapter on ….drum roll, please… writing dialogue!  Just leave a comment below with your email address included. On Wednesday, July 25, 2012 I will randomly draw a name and email the winner.
(As usual, if you don’t respond to my email message within a week, the book will go back on my shelf for another drawing at a later date.)


  1. I love writing dialogue. I think my teaching my target age group helps. Observing people in their environment and listening to how they speak is so important to writing realistic dialogue.

    1. Lucky you, Kelly! Being surrounded by your audience must help a lot... Maybe that's my problem. I work in a corporate office, but write for teens and middle graders. Hmmmm.

  2. I just finished helping my nephew, who is 22 and autistic, to self-publish his first book, The Magic Quest by Matthew Schilling. I'd love to win Seize the Story for both of us to read as he works on his sequel. It's been really intriguing to watch his mind work as he tries to corral his ideas into a plot and come up with realistic dialogue.

    1. Nancy -- what a great story about your nephew's project. I wish him great success! And never fear -- you are in the drawing!

  3. I actually enjoy writing dialogue (whether I do it well enough, of course, is up for grabs).

    First I look at the idea of - what's the conflict in each scene? Person A should want to accomplish something that is at odds with what Person B wants to accomplish. And yes, I look out for ASYB's, "As you know, Bob, you've been my father since the day I was born."

    Then when a book is finished, I go back and look at dialogue, body movements, and mannerisms for each character. So if one character says, "Ohmigorsh!" and twirls her hair around her finger when she is nervous, they don't ALL do it.

    1. Love your example about Bob above. (*giggle*) And the book I wrote about above had some of those moments, for sure. Reading them in someone else's writing really helps me learn what not to do. And good call out -- that mannerisms should be considered along with the spoken word.

  4. Dialogue has not been much of a concern to me thus far, except that in the novel I started writing I began wondering if I have my characters talking a bit too much.
    For me, dialogue happens when I am 'in' the story as I write it. It's as if I'm there watching because I visualize as I go and listen to the conversations. I know that sounds a bit weird, but - and I'm not saying it's always that way - that's how it is for me; dialogue often is easier than telling or scene setting.

  5. It's not weird! I find myself watching -- in my mind's eye -- my characters as they live out the plot when I'm writing, too. But it is the scene setting and descriptions that are easiest for me! Maybe if we joined forces, we'd be on the best seller list, Lynn! :)

  6. And the winner is....Nancy Barth! Please email me with your address so I can send you your book.