Author’s Intent, Dialogue

At different times throughout my writing career, I’ve been told I handle dialogue very well. Some reviews of my work mention the dialogue between characters as one of the strengths. Writing scripts certainly helps, but I’ve always done reasonably well writing dialogue, even before I started writing plays and sketches. My first published story, Suzi Thunder, which appeared in the 1985 GSU Review literary magazine was mostly dialogue with sparse exposition.

For me, the key to writing dialogue is capturing the nuances of a conversation. To this end I frequently hold conversations with my characters and record as much as I can. This is something I’ve always done. Even as a child, I talked to myself and still will argue with myself about subjects, sometimes finding it necessary to remind myself that I’m a single person and not two separate entities. I don’t “hear voices” in a schizophrenic manner, because I’m fully aware where my voices originate. Rather, I treat my mental and physical beings as separate components.

I’ve attempted to write in dialect for some of the characters and have met with less success. Writing The Longtimers, I gave Victoria my approximation of a Cockney accent, based mostly on how people in British comedies and dramas speak. Someone who actually speaks with this sort of accent would be able to tell the difference in how an authentic speaker would sound. In revising the works, I’m trying to move away from heavy use of dialects, capturing instead the rhythms of how characters speak.

I’ve also employed foreign languages that I don’t speak utilizing online translators for simple phrases. I had a friend who is fluent in several languages check some of the translations and make recommendations on better phrases to use. More recently, I’ve used more formal English grammar to indicate that someone is speaking in a different language, with an indicator of which language they’re speaking. Sometimes I’ll add foreign phrases as an inside joke for those who speak them. For example, in Worthy, I give the name of the academy Regan is attending in Paris as “École d’Art Française” which translates as “French Art School”.

Writing dialogue in prose is much different than writing for a script, which simply lists the character names and what they’re saying. I’m trying to move away from having endless “he said” or “she says” and rather give the characters certain quirks of speech or associate an action with the dialogue (He nods. “Yes, I believe that, too.”). It’s difficult to totally abandon “says” or “said” especially when there are multiple speakers, but I’m trying to find alternatives.

For Worthy, I’m trying several new techniques, such as giving each character a separate narrative voice, which includes the manner in which dialogue is handled. Regan narrates her own section via journal entries and Rosalind communicates with a partial stream of consciousness in between exposition. Each perspective is meant to reflect some aspect of the character’s personality such as Rhiannon’s tendency to make lists, or Abigail’s poetic nature. With each, I’m trying new methods of writing dialogue unique to the perspective.

Regardless of how it’s presented, the dialogue should flow naturally so as not to distract from the story. Since I limit my use of profanity (in my writing, at least), it’s sometimes a challenge to incorporate alternatives that sound authentic. Two friends speaking are more likely to use expletives than, say, a parent speaking to a child (depending upon the age of the child). The key is to be natural and to capture the manner in which conversations occur. Few people speak in complete sentences when talking, so the dialogue should reflect that.

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