Notes Of A Storyteller: Dialogue- Part One (How NOT To Do It)

There I was, in that stereotypical writer’s hunch at my desk. The laptop glowered at me maliciously. My weary eyebrows managed a frown in response. My wrists and fingers hardened, ready for another onslaught. My mind braced itself for a beating. Hunching over a little more, I cast out for my ideas.

“Okay,” I breathed, “What am I going to write for “Notes Of A Storyteller” this week?”

If you thought that was intense, you don’t even want to know what writing dialogue is like.

You may or may not have been down this road before. Those who have may raise their glass with me; those who haven’t may sit down and listen to me. There are two things that kill a novel quicker than anything else: your very first sentence and your dialogue. Oh, your dialogue. There are some truly horrendous examples out there. None could ever be worse than what I wrote as a wee, innocent sophomore in high school…

   “Where’s the strength in that?” jeered Mathonar when he stopped by and noted Arman’s more pale mead mug.

“Where’s the sobriety in that?” retorted Arman, observing a full mug of something that looked strong enough to craze a troll. Vertaen and some of the knights oversaw the debate with amused and grinning expressions.

   “Since when has anyone factored something stupid like that into drinking?” countered Mathonar.

    “I won’t argue with you on that point if I’ve got to explain your logical contradictions.” scored Arman, and Mathonar laughed and walked away.

    “Just what contradictions did he make that you couldn’t explain?” challenged Vertaen after he left the eye’s sight.

    “If I have to attempt telling anyone the folly behind matching up sober, stupid, and drunk the way he did, I’ve got nothing to say in the slightest.” said Arman, drawing guffaws around the group.

    “There’s a rare ‘un!” laughed one knight, “Wit and morals!”

    “Won’t see one of those again, I reckon!” said another.

I don’t care how terrible you are. If you can manage something even slightly better than this, you have hope as a novelist. If you can string together at least four lines that make a lick of sense, and that sound like things that human beings would actually say, then you just might have a future in storytelling.

Next week I’ll show you a sample from The Quest as it is today, vastly improved from what you just read. I’ll tell you then how to do good dialouge. For now, here’s a list of don’ts…

1) Don’t ever assume you are the wittiest writer ever

2) Don’t ever stop going through every line of dialouge, looking for something to edit

3) Don’t explain too much. Let your characters talk. Inserting a paragraph of facial expressions or background information will kill the rhythm of your dialogue. If you do a good job, the words your characters say will clue us in to personality, reaction, etc.

4) Don’t emulate Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas if you’re looking to connect to the readers of today. I’m terribly sorry. I know they sound wonderful. Feel free to tap into their skills of making words sound good; do not make your lines of dialogue longer than a paragraph. Readers don’t like that. They expect snappier dialogue these days (I’ll get more into that next week).

5) Don’t ever get discouraged and don’t ever stop trying. No matter how badly you screw up, there’s no way you’ll write anything as bad as The Room.

Come back in 2012 for Part Two!

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