Dialogue versus conversation | The difference between good fiction and bad?

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I’ve yet to watch Justified, the modern day western tv show that this article claims has the best dialogue in anything currently being produced, but the article brought up an interesting point: when you are writing dialogue between your characters, the execution is key. If done poorly, it could break your whole story!

So how can you write good dialogue?

According to the article, good dialogue will move the plot foreward, offer character developement, elude to past events that the reader may or may not have been exposed to, and set the pace for the story so readers can get a feel for exactly what kind of story this is going to be.

The article goes on to say that dialogue is very different than conversation. Dialogue is carefully thought out and lacks all the banal formalities and trip-ups that exist in real life conversation. In other words, dialogue is constructed; conversation is not. And in the construction of dialogue, authors are able to fit all four of the above aspects into their work.

This, I feel, is one of the reasons why so many book to movie adaptions do so poorly. What dialogue may have been golden in book form to serve as exposition, may not translate well to the big screen simply because of the fact that it was not written in a conversational way, but rather in a way for the characters to reveal things about the stories and themselves.

When we watch movies, we expect to see the pace of the dialogue between characters as it is in real life; as close to reality as possible. Perhaps a character in a book talks eloquently, using strange words and sentence structures to show details about his character. Something like that isn’t always successfully translated to the big screen unless you have a damn good actor on your hands.

To solitify this point, let’s take Red Dragon by Thomas Harris as an example. The dialogue between Will Graham and his wife runs something like this:

“If you must know, I retracted them once.”

“When was that?”

“In my youth. I had to clear a barbed-wire fence in a hurry.”

“Why?”

“I was carrying this watermelon that I had not cultivated.”

“You were fleeing? From whom?”

“A swineherd of my aquaintance. Alerted by his dogs, he burst from his dwelling in his BVD’s, waving a fowling piece. Fortunately, he tripped over a butter bean trellis and gave me a running start.”

“Did he shoot at you?”

“I thought so at the time, yes. But the reports I heard might have issued from my behind. I’ve never been entirely clear on that.”

“Did you clear the fence?”

“Handily.”

This sort of dialogue works to tell a story from Will’s past, but the choppy nature and strange word choice of the characters would hardly translate well to the big screen. They tried to replicate this dialogue style in the tv show Hannibal and it ended up coming across as incomplete thoughts, incredibly choppy and totally cheesy. I think the only reason dialogue like this works in books is because books happen in our heads, in our imagination, so we can have the characters deliver the lines however we want. When we are forced to watch actors deliver the lines (no matter how good their intentions or acting ability may be) the dialogue sometimes tends to fall apart.

Writing dialogue between characters is sometimes the hardest thing to do! Doing it well can create characters that readers adore. Doing it poorly could ruin the whole story.

And so I ask, do any of you have a method for writing your character dialogue?

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3 comments on “Dialogue versus conversation | The difference between good fiction and bad?”

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