Guest journal for #Feral-Fiction
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You know what almost every work of fiction has? Dialog. You know what many newcomers to fiction fail at? Dialog. You might be thinking, what's so hard about dialog? It's characters talking, that's kinda hard to mess up right? And isn't it spelled dialogue? It's spelled either way and you'll probably see both throughout. Just a heads up.
So what about dialog makes it hard? Well there's so many different reoccurring problems you see in dialog, I hardly know where to begin. Good dialog should reflect the character, sound natural, and flow well with the story. However most dialog ends up really forced, very fake, and just plain
Where to begin? Well let's begin with a common one, one you have probably seen. Hell maybe you're using it right now in your fiction, be it comic or literature. I'm going to call it fancy speak, although you can also call it formal speech. "Sir, we have an urgent report from Lord Snootface. He has descended from the mountains and wishes to speak with you regarding the pressing matters at hand."
"This is completely unacceptable. Three years have passed since the great treaty, and he comes now to deliver such reports?"
You get the picture. Well, what's wrong with this kind of dialog? The fact that no one talks like this.
It's simply not realistic and it sounds really forced. Nothing about it is natural
. Your characters are animals and you're making them speak in formalities; you can almost imagine a tophat and monocle and beard.
This type of dialog is modeled after what we think formal people talk like. A bunch of fancy words, lots of 'sirs' and 'lords' and so forth. But it sounds more like a parody of the real thing. And at heart of it the dialog is still pretty structurally basic, just with extra padding and filling. It sounds wordy, not 'fancy' or 'formal' or 'intelligent'. Most importantly, it's just completely bland. It has no flavor, no personality
; something composed by someone trying to look smart and failing.
So we'll avoid the fancy smancy talk, and we'll go for accents! Because those fail kind of bad too. When people try to incorporate accents, you get these two things in varying degrees:
2. Overuse of slang we've heard on tv
Let's start with the first (because that makes sense). What is eye-dialect? Well let me show you. "I dun't reck'n I know notin' bout dem thar learnin' buks. Wat ya figger i'means? Can't b' botter'd t' try 'n solve it nun."
You have any idea what that says? Probably not. That's eye-dialect; it's when you spell words to convey a pronunciation. Often times the only way to be able to understand what's being said is to read it aloud several times, but doing so completely breaks up the flow of reading. It takes you out of the story. But now you'll say you've seen it in books so that makes it okay. Except it doesn't.
Some books get away with this stuff, but that doesn't mean you should follow the example. Sometimes writing in eye-dialect was acceptable for the time period the book was written in, or sometimes the author can get away with it. You
can't get away with it. Because the moment I say "Well it's possible if you know what you're doing", everyone is going to assume they know what they're doing. And they don't
. Yes I have you figured out, because this is what people always do the minute you say an exception exists. You can sometimes get away with easily recognized words, such as gonna, dunno, I'mma, and ya. But you should be careful, because
You're probably writing that way to make the character sound stupid. You know you are. "My character is so dumb, even their words are spelled wrong!" A lot of people use words like 'gonna' in their daily life, but people tend to only attribute it to stupid characters. It's a really, really cheap trick. Instead of actually showing us your character isn't smart, you just make them sound stupid. The same as making an intelligent person use the aforementioned fancy talk.
And on this spiel: slang. You ever see someone writing for a character that descends from an area they're not from? And it just sounds, incorrect? Like British characters constantly saying bloody hell, wanker, arse, mabey drinking lots of tea, etc? It shows the writer has a very limited knowledge of what someone from that area actually sounds like, so they're basing it essentially off of the common things they hear in movies. The problem is all you've created is a stereotype, something two-dimensional. They sound more like a cartoon character than a real person, and that's the problem. You want believable characters, otherwise your reader is reminded that they're just reading a story. It becomes a distraction.
By now you're thinking I've taken all of the fun out of accents (because I have). So what do you do if you can't use eye-dialect or abuse stereotypical slang? You focus on diction and grammar. Diction is a manner of speaking and the choice of words. While you shouldn't abuse popular slang, you can study what types of vocabulary the region commonly uses. Are they big on word contractions? Are they wordy, or very concise? Are they very open about their personal lives or very secluded? This is much, much more subtle then having your character shout stereotypical slang or foreign curse words (which, by the way, you're now forbidden from using)
Next on the chopping block is an odd one, but a personal annoyance. When you talk one on one with a friend, how often do you say your friend's name? Actually, not very often. You usually say it once at the very beginning, just to get their attention (IE: start the conversation). In fiction, you see them tossing names around like infections during the plague. I know why people do it, it's to clue the reader in to which character is which in the beginning. But it's kind of really obvious and sounds odd.
On a similar vein, characters addressing each other by "brother" or "sister" or even "father" and "mother". When was the last time you called a sibling "brother" or "sister"? Probably never, that's just not how we talk. When you see it in fiction it's, again, a cheap trick to tell the reader "hey these two are related". As for mother and father, these also aren't really used. We may call our parents mom, dad, ma, pa, momma, pops, and so forth, but mother and father is very formal (and falls into fancy talk territory). These terms feel stiff and rigid because they're not a part of our natural speech. And character dialogue is all about capturing natural speech in fiction.
Next we have something called the pointless dialog. It's filler
. Completely pointless, annoying, unnatural sounding filler. You'll see it mostly show up in the beginning or whenever characters appear. It goes something like this: "Hey what did you think of that fishing last night?"
"It was awesome but my fish was bigger."
"Well mine tasted better."
"You're always so stubborn."
Great. What the hell does any of that have to do with your story. Nothing. Absolutely nothing
. It's people trying to make their characters sound natural, but there's nothing natural about it. Points for effort but, no.
On the opposite spectrum is the info-dumpers (this trope is starting to appear in every article. Hint. Hint
. Stop it.
) This is when dialog is oddly specific and contains a lot of explaining relevant information that characters should already be aware of but the audience isn't. Also called exposition. Here it is: "Hello brother!
"Hello sister! And our friends are here too. Yes, we are all descendants of the great ancient bloodline that has been forsaken by our neighboring rivals, who hate us because they are evil. But we all remember the great war where I lost my eye when we faced the rival clan by the river, on the day when there was a new moon. Because the new moon makes us powerful."
Damn, how informationally. And now I know everything! All at once. In one piece of dialogue. No. Absolutely not.
You know why not? Because all of the other characters listening would be thinking "Dude, we know all of this. It totally just happened yesterday." This is the laziest
of all writing because you don't have to show anything. You just tell them what happens in convenient dialog. But wait, what is the rule of thumb in story telling?
Show don't tell.
This next bit is just for the writers. Comic folk better keep reading though cause I'll be jumping back on track in a minute. Writers.
What's wrong with this: "Look over there!" he said in a very excited voice.
Is the "very excited" part needed? The dialog should convey the tone of the speaker. All you need here is the "he said" tag, and that's it. You can occasionally sneak in emotional cues, but once again these are cheap tricks. Let the dialogue speak for itself.
Up until now there's been a lot of don'ts, but not a lot of do's. You know what not to write, but how helpful is that? Well let's go over some helpful tips. Because I'd be kind of a jerk if I yelled at people for several minutes and then walked away. But wouldn't that be funny?
One thing you should try doing is just listening to conversations. Next time you talk to someone, analyze their choice of words. What do you notice? What kinds of words do they use? Do they use filler words a lot? How often do they use slang or contractions? Are they concise?
Remember your characters are individuals, and no two individuals are alike. This is conveyed even in dialog. Certain characters may favor using certain words or phrases, like a character that says "can do" instead of saying "yes". Maybe they never use contractions, or maybe they speak in short sentence fragments. Some characters may be very poetic while some may try to sound smart, but end up using a lot of malapropisms. Maybe your character curses or uses a lot of innuendos, or makes a lot of analogies to a particular topic.
Know your character in and out before writing their dialog; make it distinct.
Ultimately, your reader should be able to look at a piece of dialogue and know who it belongs to even if there's no cue or word bubble. For instance, think of how I'm writing. Right now. The very words you're reading
. Does it look the same as you would see in a text box? Does this look like someone who is being totally professional? Is there a personality to it? Yes. Yes there is (I friggen hope
). It's the very same with character dialog.
You want your dialog to sound natural. People in real life respond with "whatever", "don't know", and "guess so". They have verbal tics and preferences and use a lot of contractions and sometimes even make run on sentences like I'm doing right now at this very instant which is kinda meta right?
Always keep in mind the situation of the speaker. On the battlefield where every second could cost you your life, they're not going to be shouting "Sister, look to your left!" They'll probably shout "Watch out!" or more accurately "Oh fuck!" With friends they may use short sentences and the dialog may be very quick; back and forth. If their friend has just died, they'll probably speak in frantic fragments, not
in well thought out and flowery dialog.
Dialog is a big part of story-telling, whether you're a writer or a comic artist. It can be a make or break factor for some readers. A character's dialog is a look into the character's personality, and also a direct reflection of the skill of the creator. Make it good and think it out. Or maybe, don't think it out. Write it down quickly and whatever comes to you head. Don't be poetic, don't try to figure out what an accent sounds like, just think of what the character has to say and write it out. If you don't plan or think, the dialog will sound more natural. Natural dialog is the ultimate goal. Things you are not allowed to do when writing Dialogue
- Use constant stereotypical slang
- Spell words as they are pronounced
- Use foreign curse words
- Use foreign words at all if it's just one or two words in a completely normal sentence
- Have characters talk in 'fancy' talk
- Info dump
- Pointless dialog
- Have dialog that doesn't reflect the situation
- Emotion-tag dialog
- Use incorrect tagging to avoid repetition
- Have characters address each other by brother, sister, father, or motherHow to Format Dialog in Literature
And as an added bonus for the writers, we're going to talk about how to format dialog. This is something that isn't often discussed but really needs to be put out there definitively. Bad formatting can really mess up a reader. Instead of showing a bunch of incorrect examples, I'm just going to post a 'correct' format and then label the parts and explain why afterwards.He stood still for a moment and paused, hoping the words would come to him. But they didn't. The longer his pause, the more anxious she grew.
"Hey," she said, "Are you alright?"
Alex replied, "Yeah."
He couldn't deny it, she was right. He was lying. But he couldn't tell her that even if he wanted to. His tongue had become lead and his voice turned to air.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"If you were sorry you wouldn't do it. Look, I can't keep doing this. I can't keep coming here and then finding you like this, I just can't. I have my own problems to deal with, and I know you have problems too but, it's just too much.
"I know I'll see you some other time Alex but, right now maybe it's best we just, move on."
Let's break it down. I'm going to put all of the tags in
bold. </b> A tag
is a speech cue that lets the reader know who's talking, such as "he said", "John replied", and so forth.
(indent) He stood still for a moment and paused, hoping the words would come to him. But they didn't. The longer his pause the more anxious she grew.
(indent) "Hey," she said,
"Are you alright?"
(indent) Alex replied,
(indent) "You're lying."
(indent) He couldn't deny it, she was right. He was lying. But he couldn't tell her that even if he wanted to. His tongue had become lead and his voice turned to air.
(indent) "I'm sorry," he said.
(indent) "If you were sorry you wouldn't do it. Look, I can't keep doing this. I can't keep coming here and then finding you like this, I just can't. I have my own problems to be dealt with, and I know you have problems too but, it's just too much. (no quotation mark)
(indent) "I know I'll see you some other time Alex but, right now maybe it's best we just, move on."
Whenever someone starts speaking you start a new line and indent. Some people insist on attaching dialog to a paragraph, but this often looks sloppy and can be confusing. So whenever someone starts talking, new line, indent.
Now say you have a character who is talking for a really long time and you want to break up their speech into main ideas or transitions so it's not a word wall. If you need to have a speech cue, you may want to start with it, example: Alex shook his head and said "blah blah bitch I kill you." You include the first quotation mark at the beginning, but when you're ready to start the new line you do not put a quotation at the end of the previous line. Instead you start a new line, indent, and put a new quotation mark at the beginning of the new line. When the character finally stops talking you put the ending quotation mark. I don't know why this is, I just know this is the way it's formatted. Refer to the example if you are confused.
You want to be careful with your taglines. A lot of people are afraid of using "said" too often, so they try to be creative by saying things like "he stated" and "she proclaimed". Don't do this.
Those words carry specific meaning to them. In the same way you wouldn't tag a line that has a character shouting with "he whispered", you don't want to use "he stated" just to replace "he said". Stated tends to imply something said flatly, matter-of-factly, or without any emotion. Like reciting something from a paper. Proclaimed tends to carry a tone of saying something formally in a loud voice, like something giving a speech.
Don't be afraid to use he said she said. Really, your reader mostly skims that part anyway.
Another common problem is deciding when to use tag lines at all. You don't need he said she said after every line, and there's no real rule of thumb for how often to use these. It gets especially confusing when characters of the same gender are talking. Use your best judgment, and remember that tags are there to keep your reader from getting confused. If there's a lot of back and forth, you may want to use more tags.