Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cachinnating at Thesauri: The Proper Care and Feeding of Dialogue

Do you like to use a thesaurus? Really? That's great! Some writers say that thesauruses (thesauri?) are tools of the Devil. I disagree. I think they can be very useful in helping you find a better word for a sentence or phrase you might be struggling with, or for getting you out of the "I used the word angry 736 times in my 5,000 word short story" rut. By using a thesaurus, instead of angry, you can use annoyed, bitter, chafed, cross, displeased, enraged, exasperated, fierce, fiery, fuming, furious, , hateful, heated, hot, huffy, ill-tempered, impassioned, incensed, indignant, inflamed, infuriated, irascible, irate, ireful, irritable, irritated, maddened, nettled, offended, outraged, provoked, raging, resentful, riled, sore, storming, sulky, sullen, tumultous/tumultuous, uptight, vexed, or wrathful. Just be careful, because if you use splenetic, people might think that you are a little big for your britches.

Thesaurus Gigantus

But this post isn't about the thesaurus. Oh no, my friends! In fact, I want you to forget that they even exist for the next 30 minutes (if you are a really slow reader). In fact, if you even think about opening a thesaurus or a thesaurus web site, I'm going to send a thousand hungry squirrels to your door with orders to find the acorns hidden in your pants. Green? Super green! (A thousand points to you if you get the reference. Just enough to buy squirrel repellent.)

"Enough! I cachinnated at thesauri, but after that, your endeavor at badinage metamorphosed bromidic."

"Bromidic, you say?! I will have you know, Monsieur Reader, that my clauses are never bromidic. Nay! They are spanking and ineffable. You, Sir, are benighted and your mother is an ungulate. Begone!"

The squirrels are trained not to attack me.

Today's lesson is all about dialogue, and the first lesson of creating dialogue is, you don't talk about creating dialogue. Wait. Wrong topic. The first lesson of creating dialogue is that you put the thesaurus down and back away slowly. If you are creating a period piece, though, I'll recall the squirrels. But be warned!

The most important thing to remember about dialogue is that it must feel natural. Most of the more specific tips on creating dialogue come right back to that basic principle. If your dialogue is not natural, at best you slap your readers out of their suspense of disbelief and at worst you have just lost a sale, a future sale, a possible agent, or a possible publisher.

With an exception or two depending on the genre that you are writing in, dialogue can be written without a single peek at a thesaurus, and you can capture that realism simply by paying attention to conversations around you. Unless "around you" means "I haven't seen the outside in months and the only living creatures I have to talk to are my pet cockroaches." In that case, take a shower, put on some clean clothes, and GET THE HELL OUT OF THE HOUSE. You don't even have to be social. Just go sit by yourself at a Starbucks with a writing journal and a pen and start paying attention.

Once you have filled up a few pages, are hopped up on seven cups of espresso, and are twitching like a meth addict, then (and only then) are you permitted to leave to return to your cave and start working on your characters' dialogue.

Since your attention span is going to be about as long as a drunken cricket's, I'm going to offer some additional tips in easy-to-read-between-wall-bouncing bullet points. Ready? Here we go!

  • People have favorite or habitually used words or phrases. Your characters should too.

  • Use contractions unless your character is supposed to sound pretentious or like he's giving a speech or is in some other formal setting. I am = I'm. You are = You're (or Your if you are typing your dialogue on some forum on the Internet. # PetPeeve).

  • Practice writing dialogue without any attributions. This is hugely helpful in honing different speaking styles for different characters.

  • Use sideways dialogue. "This bratwurst sausage is really good. Don't you think?" "Uhm, yeah." "I really like it when they are long like this, and thick. And how the juices just dribble out all over my chin." "Dude, that's gross. Freaking stop."

  • Don't write out stuttering in dialogue. This one is a rule just asking to be broken. A cautionary note: All the commas, dashes, or ellipses (whichever you tend to use) can be distracting for a reader.

  • If you are attempting to write in a certain dialect make sure that you are good at writing in that dialect, and the only way to do that is to run it by people, let them read it, and get some feedback. Writing dialogue in a dialect can end very very badly... like my following example: "Yo, Vinny. Dat sausage? Da bomb, man. Da bomb. Dose juices, like whoa. In mah mouf man. In mah mouf." (Author's note: I don't write dialect.) Instead, you could do this: "Yo, Vinny. That sausage? The bomb, man. The bomb," Tony said, his Italian accent thick on his tongue.
There's more that can be said about dialogue, but I'll save it for another time. I'm sure right now you are coming down from your caffeine high and probably shivering in the corner.

Exercise: Study the following picture and write a few lines of dialogue to describe what they could be chatting about. If you're feeling saucy, try it without attribution and with sideways dialogue. As always, the comments are waiting for your masterpieces.


Post a Comment

Yes, I moderate the comments. No, it is not impinging upon your free speech rights if I delete your comment. I welcome open, mature discussion. I don't welcome trolls or hate(ful) speech.

It may take a day or two for your comment to appear. If it's not showing after a handful of days, you can safely assume that you angered the blog god and your comment was smote.