Friday, May 25, 2007

Let's write some dialogue, she said

One symptom that most ADD "victims" appear to share is interrupting people while they're speaking. Of course it's rude to interrupt, but we often can't control ourselves. Interrupting doesn't necessarily signal an ego problem or even a lack of interest in what the other person is saying. It's most often a simple misfiring in the brain: the person with ADD is having trouble with the timing of the conversation.

I interrupt people a lot. I am aware that I do it, often uncomfortably so. I realize that it frustrates and insults people, but I can't stop doing it--not unless I avoid conversation entirely.

Everyone interrupts from time to time. Even calm, considerate, polite people do it. So maybe one way to make the dialogue "real" in our novels is to show our characters interrupting each other. Interruptions can heighten emotion and suspense and keep the pace zipping along.

This is one of those instances in which my having ADD is a good thing, because I could write this stuff in my sleep. But for you calm, considerate, polite people who have little experience with this sort of thing, here's some interrupted conversation from my upcoming book:

Sam shot out of his chair. "Have you lost your mind?" Gesturing wildly with his free hand, he paced behind his desk. "She's beautiful. She's amazing. She's--" He realized what he was saying and shut up.

"I thought we discussed this," Reid said with his mouth full. "You weren't supposed to--"

"Funny," Sam interrupted. "You seem to be under the impression that you have a say over who I date."

"I mean it, Sam." All levity had drained from Reid's voice. "This is a bad idea. Like I said before--"

"I heard you." Sam flopped back into his chair.

Here from the same novel is another exchange with some natural-sounding interruptions. These characters are so angry they're barely giving each other a chance to speak:

That didn't even slow her down. "You know what I'm talking about, Sam. You know Reid goaded him into this. Now he's going to take some stupid risks just because--"

"Now hold on," Sam said, annoyed that she had dragged Reid into this. "There's not a lot my brother can do about it if your boyfriend is determined to--"

"He's jealous of you," she cut in. "He thinks he has to--"

"Victoria." When she stopped, Sam lowered his voice to a menacing softness. "Why would Julian be jealous of me?"

For more dialogue on dialogue, check out today's post at The Charis Connection, where a handful of Christian authors have posted some helpful tips. Here's an excerpt, some good advice from the wildly talented B.J. Hoff:

Leave out the "stuff" we actually use in everyday dialogue. The "hi, how are you?" and the "well, I was just thinking," and most of the "ifs, ands, and buts." Don't use dialogue to update another character. Example: "Oh, right. That was the year George had the breakdown after Marcia left him for that golf pro, and you ended up in the hospital after stepping on the dog's tennis ball. You remember." Know your characters so well you don't have to pepper your dialogue with running streams of attributions ("Sissy said," "Terry asked," etc.). If you're confident of your characters, you ought to be able to write an entire page or more of dialogue without any attributions, or at least use them sparingly. Each character's voice should be so strong he's immediately identifiable by what he says and the way he says it. Say what you need and nothing more, and say it with as few words as possible. -BJ Hoff

If you're a writer who wants to sharpen your dialogue skills, click over and read the rest of the post. But before you go, here's one last bit of advice from me: Don't be too concerned about rules, especially the ones that insist you should only rarely let your characters call each other by name and that you should avoid using tags like she sputtered or he said slowly. Read your dialogue aloud. If you're convinced that it sounds natural, go with your gut. Even the best writers often disagree on the "correct" way to write dialogue.


Amy Jane said...

Speaking of dialogue, do you think it's possible to have too much?

My husband was reading my first couple of chapters last night,then said, "I've got to look at another book-- the action moves fast enough, but it's like reading a play. I want to see if another book does this."

I reviewed what he read, and there's certainly more than talk going on, but that's the impression he left with.

Do you have time to comment?

Domino said...

I've been a quiet person all my life, so my husband told me to learn how to interrupt in order to participate in conversations.

In my stories, I work on overlaying comments in meaningful interruptions. Your examples were great. I think some (a small amount) of interruptions are more natural than everyone finishing all of their sentences. Especially if there's a child. Children interrrupt all the time - even nice ones.

Kris Eton said...

amy jane, as a reader, I prefer books that have a lot of description. Others prefer very little and lots of dialogue. I am reading a novel currently that is by a best-selling author that has very little in the way of description...but lots and lots of talking. I don't like it. It is turning me off to the book. I can't *see* where the characters are or envision what they are doing.

But some people like books like this. Could be your husband does not. But that doesn't mean someone else won't. There needs to be *some* description in order for us to visualise these characters, but there doesn't need to be paragraphs detailing each facial expression, the furniture surrounding them, etc.

Just my two cents...

Brenda Coulter said...

Domino, you're right about children interrupting. But you rarely see that in novels.

Amy and Kris, I love dialogue, but there must be a good balance between that and narrative. As a reader, I can tolerate quite a bit of dialogue. Some readers can't. I have heard some authors and editors talk about target percentages for dialogue in a manuscript, but ultimately the only opinion that matters is that of the editor who considers buying your story. If she thinks you're using too much dialogue, she'll probably mention that.