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Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling: #6 (+ Warbreaker)

First off, new Warbreaker! Chapter Fifty Four

(Warbreaker is an ebook I’m releasing serially. Look on this thread for an explanation, along with previous chapters.) And now, another of my:

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)

#6: Stilted Dialogue

Let’s face it. People don’t talk like they do in books. Or, at least, they don’t talk like they do in most books. There are some few novels out there, primarily in the literary world, that try very hard to capture human conversation in its fullness. They include the hums, the fractured sentences, the backing up and starting again, and all of that. If you haven’t done it, take the opportunity sometime to write down a conversation you hear word for word.

I’m not saying we need to write books like that. Honestly, that would make for some pretty terrible storytelling. A good story is less about how realistic some of these presentations are, and more about how realistic they FEEL. The continual starting and stopping of normal dialogue would actually pull readers out, I think, and grow frustrating–just like it often grows frustrating when we try to write accents verbatim.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we as writers have licence to do whatever we want with our language. I think that a lot of the time, we go into a scene with a specific goal in mind, and force our discussions to conform to these goals. This, in turn, may advance the plot well–but I think it works to undermine character, as it doesn’t let them really show their personalities in the ways that are natural.

A lot of the time, we use what is called ‘Maid and Butler’ dialogue (where two characters explain things to each other that they should already know for the benefit of the reader.) We use talking heads who aren’t as much people as they are vehicles for getting out the information we want the reader to know. This is one of the early things we point out to newer writers to avoid–but I don’t think that we pros avoid it all the time. We’re just a lot better at hiding when we’re doing it.

This may be like numbers 10 and 9 on my list–things that we can’t avoid, but should minimize. However, I think that there are some things one can work on in this area (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone else.) Good storytelling happens when the author works hard to make each character’s voice distinctive, and that their personal motivations are considered, so that in conversation character is shown and enhanced as the plot is forwarded. I like it personally when the conversation is influenced by surrounding as well–usually in only subtle ways–so that setting is brought into it as well.

Don’t be afraid to throw in a few turns in the conversation that focus on things the characters would find important, as long as it doesn’t tangent you for too long. Learn what your own habits in writing are (the words you tend to use more often than most people, the phrases you particularly enjoy) and decide which characters wouldn’t use these things. During a revision, give them their own unique words and phrases. (Subtle things, mostly. You don’t want words that draw attention. For instance, one of my own is ‘a bit.’ I use that more often than most. It’s not a distinctive enough phrase to draw attention, but it’s one of the subtle clues that a piece is written by me.)

And, stay away from language that REALLY feels like it isn’t something anyone would say. We accept, in novels, language that is too polished for real life. However, there’s a line (different for every reader) which if you cross, will make your dialogue seem cardboard. It’s hard to judge this on your own, so give the story to some readers and see what they say. However, I’d say that usually, new authors have a problem with cardboard prose rather than prose that is too relaxed, so chances are you’re erring on that side (if, indeed, you have troubles.)

Good dialogue often means good storytelling. If I had to pick one of the two, I’d say cut corners in narrative, but make your dialogue shine.

#5 Tomorrow! (Assuming I do a Thursday update, which is never certain around here.)

|   Castellano