The Skill List Project: Dialogue Preliminaries

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I suggested we might take a look at dialogue this month…and since I haven’t come up with an excuse that will let me avoid it, I suppose I should bite the bullet and talk about talking. (It’s difficult to talk while biting a bullet, but I’ll soldier on.)

Opening Formalities

The most basic requirement for writing dialogue is getting the punctuation right. As I noted in a posting earlier in this series, punctuating dialogue isn’t rocket science, but a lot of novices get it wrong. Unless you’re William Gaddis, you don’t have the option of making up your own punctuation rules—get one of the reference books I mentioned in the post on punctuation, and follow the rules exactly. Getting “creative” with dialogue punctuation won’t make an editor think well of you.

As another opening formality, I’ll honor tradition by acknowledging that written dialogue is a very different beast from actual speech. Every how-to-write book in the world spends multiple paragraphs soliloquizing about how real-life speech is full of, “Um, ahh, er, y’know, huh, <pause>, right?” not to mention inelegant sentence fragments, repetitive redundant repetitions, and other such infelicities. We seldom notice them in everyday conversation, but these verbal tics would drive us to the brink of homicide if they were faithfully transcribed onto the page.

An occasional, “Um,” or incoherence can be useful for characterization, setting a tone, or establishing an air of authenticity. However, use such tricks sparingly: as spice, not the bulk of the meal. Like so much else in fiction, you can write dialogue that feels real without slavishly reproducing reality.

…And Anyway Reality is Overrated

Sometime, even feeling realistic is not your goal. Since I recently saw The Avengers, let me talk about the dialogue in that:

  • Thor speaks in “high fantasy hero” dialect: flowery, with few contractions and no slang.
  • Loki speaks in “high fantasy villain” dialect: lengthy sentences with heightened vocabulary and the sense that he’s always giving a speech rather than having a conversation.
  • Tony Stark speaks in Smartass: almost everything he says is a joke (and lucky for the audience, most of his lines are actually funny).
  • Coloney Fury speaks in Badass…although maybe that has nothing to do with the words in the script and everything to do with Samuel L. Jackson.

Other characters speak more “realistically”: their lines are still distinctive (Captain America’s boy-next-door wholesomeness is very different from Black Widow’s “Am I the only adult in the room?” way of speaking) but the characters have more everday believability compared to Thor, Loki, Stark and Fury.

Is it bad that some characters don’t speak believably? It depends on the context and your artistic goals. This is easiest to see in wisecracking characters like Tony Stark. In real life, someone who manages a good punchline every five minutes probably has a reputation for being a really funny person. In comedy, however, going five minutes between laughs is a disaster. Comic characters are usually impossibly witty…and we love them for it.

“Good” Dialogue

This raises the question: what is good dialogue? For an answer, I’m going to borrow some ideas I got from Steven Brust at an SF convention some years ago. Brust was talking about what makes good characterization, but I think his insights are also applicable to dialogue. I’m going to steal them, and adapt them for my purposes here.

Brust observed that people use the word “good” to mean several different things, some of which may be partly or wholly incompatible with each other. “Good” can mean:

  • Believable: In the case of dialogue, this sounds like real people talking. You can imagine yourself or your friends saying more or less the same things.
  • Entertaining: We like hearing this kind of talk, often because it’s humorous, but alternatively because it’s badass or poetic, charming or endearing. Such dialogue is often unrealistic—too slick or poignant to be true—but we don’t care.
  • Likeable or Fascinating: Some voices just grab you. I felt that way as soon as I started reading N. K. Jemisin‘s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I can’t put my finger on why the narrator’s speech is so compelling, but her voice simply caught my attention and I had to keep reading. In Samuel R. Delany‘s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, there’s a fabulous monologue from a criminal named Clym the Professional1 that has stuck in my mind for almost thirty years because of its sheer audacious weirdness…and speaking of weirdness, who can ignore the dialogue from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass? Both those books became classics precisely because the dialogue was like nothing anyone had ever heard before.

Preliminaries Over…Next Time Down to Work

Given that “good” dialogue is resistant to definition, what can we say about the skill of writing it? That’s a question I’ll look at in my posting next month. In the meantime, I’ll ask you readers for your ideas: what books (SF or not) are notable for having dialogue that works?

1 Actually, the superscript doesn’t mean a footnote. You’ll have to read the book to find out why, but in the novel’s world, every job title has a superscript number.

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  1. 1. Mary

    I would say that “believable” isn’t enough on its own. We have to have some other investment in it. Such as wanting to hear it.

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James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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