Monday, March 3, 2014

Cowley on Penning Dialogue

Over at her blog, English professor Katherine Cowley offers up the kind of detailed advice about penning dialogue that craft-oriented writers crave. Excerpt:
Dialogue is the impression of how people speak in real life, but actually much more interesting, with more forward motion. Dialogue is one of the core elements of storytelling, and it needs to be used well.

Dialogue is an expression of character, background, education, locality, and circumstance. Listen to how people talk and you'll see that who they are and the situation they find themselves in will influence what they say and how they say it.
Read the whole thing. Cowley offers up all sorts of technical advice, such as the effect of adjective and pronoun choices, the wisdom of omitting conversational attributions, and what happens when you interject action into talk. My favorite section, though, has to about how to turn overheard conversations into fiction-worthy dialogue:
Most writing manuals agree that while you should listen to people and imitate speech patterns, you shouldn't use verbatim conversation. Writer Aaron Elkins gives an example of an actual conversation he recorded:
"You know how, how … but ... some mornings the minute you walk in the door --"

"Every morning."

"Yes, that's how these, the way they, the way they …"

"No, it's not. It's not the, the --"

"Yes, it is, it is. Because if you, unless you --"

"No, uh-uh, absolutely not."
While accurate to real life, that would be terrible dialogue for fiction.

If you're not supposed to use actual conversation, how do you write realistic dialogue?

Aaron Elkins explains: "Realistic dialogue attempts to capture the flavor of real speech, but it does it selectively. Word repetitions, hesitations, stammers, and dead ends have to be ruthlessly pruned. So do many of the polite conventions."
That's superb advice, because inspiration lurks in the post office, at the grocery store, in the break room -- just about everywhere. Consider the exchange I overheard while picking up a bottle of wine for a dinner with visiting relatives. While I was waiting at the cash register, a rawbone-thin woman in line behind me hefted a 1.75-liter bottle of premium vodka:
"The label says this is the best vodka in the world," she said, waving the jug in the general direction of a salesman. "Why?"

The salesman blinked. "Well, a lot of vodkas are made from potatoes or beets. This one is distilled from wheat."

"Is it non-GMO wheat?"

"I'm ... not sure. But I know the vodka's gluten-free."
Worrying about whether or not a batch of liver-pounding, largely tasteless "product code 020001" meets your gastronomical and ecocentric concerns signals somewhat misplaced priorities, don't you think?

Come, dear readers, share with me your own examples of dialogue adapted from the everyday.

(Picture: CC 2005 by Yosomono)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Ursula K. Leguinn's The Word for World is Forest (I believe) features a belligerent, ignorant, fool of a military leader. His dialog was almost painful to read, but I happened to read that book while I was taking a linguistics class. In paying attention to real dialog for the first time, I realized that his speech patterns were almost a perfect replication of those of myself and many of my friends. The only difference was that, unlike myself and my friends, this general was juxtaposed against characters whose dialog had been lovingly curated by a master wordsmith.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(That same novel also features the plot of Avatar, only done better, with teddy bear protagonists.)

Loren Eaton said...

Le Guin is brilliant, no doubt about it. I don't always enjoy her books, but I've never picked one up that I haven't appreciated (if that dichotomy makes any sense).