Writing Excuses: Dialog or Dialogue

Source: http://itunes.apple.com

Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Linda Strahl, who will be one of the editors of the Jet Fuel Review this fall. Linda is an English major at Lewis University. 

“How do writers solve the dialog problem in their stories?” This question has many answers and the guest on this Writing Excuses Podcast, John Scalzi, does rise to the challenge of giving writers advice and strategies. The tips are simple but there are a lot of examples to go through.

Scalzi defines dialog as “a speech-like process that exists to convey information in a story.” This is a very clinical definition, but Howard, the comic relief, gives us a version more aptly descriptive, “Dialog is a caricature to speech… Dialog is to actual speech as cartoonists’ line art is to fine oils.” This is commended by Scalzi as a very accurate example.

But how do we step away from dialog that is too genre specific? Read other genres. This is the foremost tip that Scalzi gives the audience. This is because Scalzi knows that many writers are readers of the genre they write in, especially the sci-fiction/fantasy industry. By going into different genres, or even different mediums of dialog, such as movies, a writer will have a fresher take on how to construct a ‘plausible’ conversation involving characters of their story.

What genres do they suggest? The simplest answer is to look at the genres geared towards conversation that don’t have the Socratic monologues that many sci-fi fiction writers are in danger of falling into as a habit. Romance, mystery and literary fiction all use dialog that is ‘crafted differently’ than the sci-fi/ fantasy genre uses.

Other ways of dialog research, which I mentioned earlier, can be found by looking at movies. Scalzi recommends this because of his past profession as a movie critic. “Movies have to compact things… without the crutch,” which is explained as the ability to get into a character’s head. To use an explanation from Michael Crichton — the screenwriter of Jurassic Park –“Take a book of four-hundred pages. The screenplay of the same book will be forty pages long, losing ninety percent of the material.” A writer should take from the compacted idea that a conversation has to be in order to make the conversations look real.

Plausibility is not determined by the accuracy of a conversation in a book or a movie; in real life that would be too long. The idea of plausibility in characters’ interactions has to walk the fine line between “not being real enough… and being too real.” If it isn’t real enough then the reader slips out of the story, and if it is too real the reader may get bored. The group said that the “implication of realness” is something a writer should strive for.

How do we make sure that the dialog is plausible? Read it out loud, or have someone else read it to you. If you don’t have to pause because the sentence doesn’t make sense, or groan because the interaction is taking too long, then you have successfully made a reasonable dialog.

The recommended book is John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation, which is a reboot of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Scalzi’s challenge is also an interesting exercise that will entertain the audience, “Have a dialog between someone ordering from a fast food drive-thru and the person taking the order.” The twist here is that “the person taking the order is being held up at gun point.” As for the movie suggestions: Thin Man, Tootsie and romantic comedies were examples. But a small list of what us writers SHOULD NOT DO:

  • Don’t start writing your stories like a movie script
  • Don’t create monologues of description.
  • Don’t take use written dialog, your dialog will become too stylized.

And remember, plausibility is what counts.

-Linda K. Strahl

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