Dialogue

I like dialogue. I enjoy reading it and writing it. Dialogue is an invaluable component of any story. It allows you to advance the plot, fill in back story, develop characters, reveal conflict, and increase tension. Dialogue must realistic but it cannot be real. Have you ever read a court transcript? It can be embarrassing to find out how we really sound.

Our speech is often full of um’s, er’s, pauses, interruptions, and d’uh’s. We speak in incomplete sentences, often without thinking through what we want to say, and then not saying what we intended or what we mean. Thankfully, the writer can think before he or she puts pen to paper. The result may be unnatural but it sounds like how we want to speak and how we think we should speak.

Even with this caveat, it is still sometimes difficult to keep dialogue relevant, interesting and vital to the story. As Donald Maass points out in The Breakout Novelist “Info dump is still info dump, even when it’s batted back and forth in dialogue.” What keeps the exchange riveting? Whether it is about police practices, medical procedures, or family dynamics, something needs to keep the reader reading. This may be witty repartee, or humour, or tension between the characters. The latter is what Donald Maass especially recommends.

“It is not the information itself that nails us to the page—,” he says, “it comes from people, not topics. What we want to know is not whether a debate will settle a point of contention, but whether the debaters will reconcile.”

It’s a lot to do in what might seem a simple piece of conversation. Make your thoughts clear. Demonstrate the characteristics of your protagonists and antagonists. Advance the plot. Keep the speech realistic but not real. Ratchet up the tension.

But I think it should also be fun. Fun to read and fun to write. One way to do that is to play with the words, and to my mind, one sort of play is writing accents. Now I don’t mean the obvious. No “Ve hav vays to make you talk.” Rather I mean writing the dialogue with clear correct English but doing it in the way that someone from another country or language group would speak. John LeCarre is an expert at this. His Germans sound like Germans; his Russians like Russians. Until I read one of his novels, I had no idea how a Hungarian sounded. Now I do.

Here’s an example. The following are three lines of dialogue from three different characters of three different nationalities. Can you tell where they’re from?

“Would it be a cup of tea you’d be wanting now?”

“Oh my goodness, some tea you must be having.”

“Tea? But no, it is—how you say—too English. No, not tea.”

Have fun and keep writing.

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2 Responses to Dialogue

  1. bgoodnough says:

    Very informative. Loved the examples.
    The first is Irish.
    The second I thought was maybe German, my wife thought Dutch.
    The last is French: «Du thé? Mais non, c’est trop – comment dit-on – trop anglais. Non, pas du thé.»

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