Mercy (thirstyrobot) wrote in spnroundtable,

Workshop - Dean, Grimly: Or, How to Dialogue Good

Hi! I'm Mercy aka thirstyrobot and I love dialogue. Writing it, reading it, and, apparently, talking your ear off about it while committing jokey grammatical errors.

This workshop is to do with how to help your dialogue fit into your story, as well as help the dialogue itself sound more like it was spoken by the characters we know and love. It also possibly has more swearing than a writing guide really needs, so be forewarned.

First and foremost, I will point you to the previous workshop on the dialogue subject by clex_monkie89, which gives a lot of awesomely useful advice. As the mods were kind enough to let me once-more-with-feeling this topic, I'll try not to overlap too much.

Good dialogue, to me, does two (not only two, but mainly two) things:

  • Advances the plot and shows what's going on, either with or without additional narration-- "Oh my god, did that just explode?" and the ensuing conversation can be just as effective as three paragraphs of description of the explosion and related shrapnel.

  • The dreaded show-not-tell your creative writing teacher used to red-pen you about (or that your beta red-pens you about currently), especially in the relationship and characterization departments. Are you writing "I am an angel of the Lord" Castiel or "I watch the bees" Castiel? Your dialogue can tell the reader a lot before you even get through all that exposition, and give some clues the exposition might leave out (due to POV or whatever other reasons).

Dean, Grimly: Or, How to Dialogue Good

I. There are some rules.

Guys, let's talk about punctuation for a minute. I know, I know: yawn. But it's important. If your words are always fantastic and amazing and pitch-perfect, some readers will overlook technical mistakes, but if, like me and most people, you are occasionally a little off-tone and sometimes have to make Castiel say things like get my swerve on Because of Reasons, punctuation mistakes are harder to overlook.

I'm not going to go all Strunk and White on you (though my bar trivia team was called Crunk and White and I do own the illustrated edition), but there are right ways and wrong ways to punctuate dialogue, and if you're not sure how something's supposed to be done, a boatload of guides already exist on the subject. Failing all that as reference material, crack open the nearest novel (I mean, as long as it's not, like, Faulkner or something) and look at how it's done there. Failing absolutely all else, break paragraphs between speakers, fake it as best you can, and then get help.

II. Said, its brothers, and also the cousins you probably shouldn't invite too often because they're just going to stick their dick in the mashed potatoes.

Said. Asked. Shouted. Exclaimed. Whined. Ejaculated and vociferated and smiled, what?

Unless you've got a whole bunch of characters talking back and forth in the same scene (and sometimes even then), your dialogue should be able to give some indication of who's speaking without said Dean-ing it up every other line. Someone's particular speech mannerisms can often do that all on their own (to give the most basic example I can think of, in most cases, if you've got a scene with just Dean and Castiel, you know the guy saying "dude" is Dean). But more on that later.

What's up right now is talking about what goes in that Dean said place.

Said (or says, if you're a present-tense junkie like myself) is one of those things that you get bad advice about. Get told to replace it with other things, because who needs said all the time, right? That's boring, right? Wrong. (Well, often wrong.)

The thing is (and I am wholesale stealing this from some meta I can't remember the source of anymore about why it's okay to use a character's name repeatedly instead of going 'the other man' and 'the blond' all over the place), the reader's eye sort of skips over a said. It's just a thing that's there to help. It's like a decent waiter. Useful while present, but not something you give too much thought to once you've left an appropriate tip and grabbed a fistful of free mints on your way out the door.

Your characters can keep said-ing and said-ing for the whole story, and the repetition will be way less obvious than if you sit down with a thesaurus and never say the same said twice.

I don't mean said and only said-- my point is that generic, boring speech tags are totally totally fine. I was just looking for a particular passage in one of my favorite ever reread-it-like-comfort-food fics, and I knew it had a 'tells' in it. And it turned out, upon a ctrl+f, that the author uses 'tells' for like, a zillion lines. And I had never noticed the repetition, despite having read the fic upwards of probably a dozen times, and never would have.

Asked? Of course. It's a question. You ask it. Equally shouted in the same vein, (I admittedly like exclaimed less on a personal level). Even something along the lines of "Never," Dean lied. when he's just been asked about wearing lacy pink undergarments, because we all know he's lying like a lying liar and maybe you've got eight saids in a row and it's making you crazy.

But good dialogue showing-not-telling means that you don't really need to give the reader too many cues to know the intonation of a particular phrase. Exclamation point, they're probably exclaiming. Maybe shouting. Question mark, they're probably asking. Dean saying, "Screw you, man," he's most likely either glaring or... well, glaring, but jokingly. Possibly grumbling, and if he needs to grumble, then fine. What he doesn't necessarily need to do is chuckle it good-naturedly every single time if we can already infer that he might be doing something like that. Context helps there, and within a story, context will exist.

What we don't want is thesaurus bingo. If you can't think of an immediate alternative to said and there's no way a reader will be able to tell who's speaking otherwise, just embrace the said. We don't need everyone to yell, whisper, hiss, growl, etc. ad infinitum every other phrase. It gets weirder than 80,000 saids in a row would.

III. Title track! Dean, grimly: What they're saying and how they say it.

Conventional wisdom for making sure your dialogue is working is to read it out loud. Which works like a magical magic thing for a lot of people. It's not something I personally do. Not because I think it's not the right way to do it, just because that's how I roll. I sort of just tune in to the Dean's Voice or Sam's Voice or Bobby's Voice (or whomever's voice) radio station in my head and see if I get weird discordant squeals. If you can hear a character speaking and realize that Shift it, you lot is something only Crowley or Balthazar should say, or that, unless you've got a hell of an AU (or some sarcasm) going on, Castiel would never say dude-- pretty much, if you're already sort of tuned in this way, reading aloud might help you, or it might not.

This is America, Bitches.

What will help you, no matter what, is a good beta. Preferably an American one, unless you're focusing on characters with non-American accents (and Americans doing that, take to heart the reverse of this). Something like a ha bloody ha from Dean can throw a reader out pretty quickly if they're aware of the oops-wrong-country of it. Especially if American English is not something you're near and dear with, your dialogue will improve by leaps and bounds if you get someone with native knowledge to look over it.

It's easy enough to know that in SPN-land, you go to a liquor store and not an off-licence, but it's less easy without experience to realize that despite the regionally correct naming of the destination, Are you off to the liquor store, then? still isn't exactly American-speak. Just turning that little nuance the right way can make so much difference for a character's voice and its believability.

And no, in the long run, especially if your fic is as awesome and captivating as it obviously is, maybe nobody's going to care if somebody got into a lift instead of an elevator, or wasn't bothered instead of not giving a crap. But there's always that extra mile (kilometer?), and MANY, MANY people are suckers for good, authentic-sounding dialogue, so why not make it the best you can make it?

Contractions: Not Just for Mpreg Anymore, Or: We Are Not Robots

One time when reading out loud will definitely help is in making sure your characters are talking like a real person might talk. Obviously, we're occasionally dealing with angels and gods and other umpty-million-year-old entities who might have some funny diction going on, but by and large, there's no reason for a regular human to say, "I am bringing you the buttplug," unless the 'am' has some kind of emphasis toward the affirmative, like Jared's just said Jensen is totally coming over with zero buttplugs. A regular human Jensen would just say I'm bringing or I don't even wanna touch that damn thing. When you're talking for real, lacking any emphasis, you don't say I will not bring you the buttplug or I do not want to touch the buttplug, you say won't and don't. That can really be applied to most contractions-- I'm, he's, didn't, can't, isn't, etc.

A notable exception might be ain't. Dean, Bobby, Ellen, as well as most of the older-generation hunters we meet have been known to throw one in there now and then, but use with care.

Of course, the flipside of this is using more formal speech to help illustrate a character's other-ness. Their angel-ness or god-ness or their umpty-million-years-old-entity-ness. I was once criticized for an "overly stilted" Castiel in an AU, so that can also backfire. But I was making him overly formal on purpose and he gradually loosened up (she said defensively). Things like that can be shown through dialogue too, showing where your character's coming from and where they end up. Sometimes a shift in speech patterns toward less or more formal can help illustrate their arc, without the sometimes awkward job of having to find a way to point it out in narration.

But by and large, your regular-age human character will talk a lot like you. Think about what you'd say and then filter it through what their voice sounds like. "Ugh, spinach is gross," from you becomes more, "You know I friggin' hate spinach, Sammy," from Dean, and less, "Damn it, Sam, you know I do not like spinach." Actually I like spinach a lot (maybe I should have stuck with the buttplugs), but pretty much when a regular person is speaking, it's not formal writing. There's not points off for contractions and slang and gonna and wanna.

Adverbs Are Like Salt (in your food, not your shotgun shells)

A few adverbs can make things better, but too many and it's just like, "Wow, that's a lot of adverbs." Using them to help get the meaning of dialogue across is an easy trap to fall into. Much like the situation in the previous section where we want to avoid making every single statement be grumbled or whined or what-have-you, not every single verb surrounding your dialogue needs to be qualified. Do you even know how many instances there are of ...Dean said grimly in SPN fic? The answer is a lot. I googled. Thank you, French Mistake. Now, no, there's nothing inherently wrong with Dean saying something grimly. It probably occurs in many very excellent fics. But just using it as a general example, if Dean's going to say something grimly, can you get it across in his words? If not, can some other cue be given?

IV: When it's Better to Say Nothing at All.

Just as a lot of dialogue without much narration can be effective and awesome, so can using dialogue sparingly. We don't have to faithfully report every single word, especially when the speech isn't doing anything that the narration isn't.

Cheeseburger, Pepsi, Chips

Consider a coffee shop, for example. We know, if Sam is walking in and ordering a drink, that someone behind the counter will probably greet him and ask him what he'd like to order, and at some point thereafter, Sam will order something, be told how much it costs, and pay for it. If he's lucky, he'll get to drink said beverage before he's attacked by some slavering hell-beastie (or, depending on your universe, perhaps have it spilled all over him by Gabriel the Attractive Barista).

The dialogue that goes along with all of that can be assumed, if it's nothing too different than might happen between one of us and our friendly neighborhood barista and can more or less be summed up by Sam walked into the coffee shop and ordered a triple red-eye.. The 'what can I get for you?' and the 'that'll be three-fifty' of it all isn't strictly necessary if it doesn't otherwise contribute to the scene. Even if the barista is the slavering hell-beastie, you still might not need the entire conversation to get to the 'that'll be three-fifty...and your soul' part of the equation, and what dialogue you do use will be more meaningful because the reader will be less likely to assume it's mundane filler and skim it.

This can apply to a multitude of everyday situations-- if it's a conversation everyone's had at some point in their lives that only advances the plot and characterization as far as someone ending up with a sandwich or a hotel room, you might not need the whole thing. You can just pick out the good bits and trust that your readers have experienced uneventful exchanges of goods and services before and know how it goes.

The Dreaded Exposition Speech

You know it. We all know it. Hell, most of us have done it. It's that conversation where one character explains some piece of backstory to another character. It's also one of the most common places where you'll see dialogue turn unnatural. Literary, even. Like it's narration. In which case, just possibly, it should be, especially when we already know the information that's being shared-- we all know how Mary Winchester died and that Dean and Sam grew up on the road, and even in a total AU these things will often remain very similar. So we don't necessarily need Sam or Dean to speak every detail. And if someone's about to say something like, "flames engulfed the house, killing her tragically," out loud in the 21st century, it might be a signal to rethink what should be narrated and what should be spoken. The way I usually like to handle these conversations is that most of it's narrated but there's a line or two spoken here and there, when I've thought of something particularly good for someone to say. Obviously, what works for one story won't always work for another, one writer's style versus another writer's, etc, but even when making an extended speech, Sam should talk like Sam and not like your narration.

You onomotopaei'd all over my phonetics and there wasn't even a watersports warning (aka The 'Unnnngh' Section)

I'm pretty sure this has been covered to some degree in about 60,000 pieces of advice on how to write sex scenes, but yeah. Sometimes somebody makes a noise. Sometimes you've already got two moans and three groans and a growl in there (not necessarily recommended; see above re: said), but there's still a noise happening. Sometimes it's a grunty moany kind of sound that, if spelled out, might approximate to 'unnnngh.' That doesn't mean it's a good idea to actually spell it. My rule with onomatopoeia is that it's like Marcellus Wallace's briefcase: whatever the reader imagines from your description of the sound will contribute to their reading experience more than you spelling out every syllable will. (Also: this is not an analogy workshop, so hush.)

I'm not just talking about sex noises, either-- there's characters with colds, talking with their mouths full, talking while brushing their teeth, talking while plagued with supernaturally-induced boils, etc. We've all written a sentence like "Shove it," she says, though it comes out more like 'shub id' (I wrote that very sentence a couple of weeks ago, in fact), and while the occasional phonetic spelling can throw in some color, I've always felt that once at most is enough to establish that Dean's got a stuffy nose and sounds like it. I obviously think that example is an okay thing to do, or I wouldn't have done it, but there's one line of 'I hab a stuvvy doze,' and then there's continuing it for multiple lines that the reader has to decode without much help from the context. For one thing, while we're writing to sound like our characters, not all of our readers have the same accent, and that can be kind of a bitch to translate, especially in an extended fashion.

V. I'm shutting up now.

I hope you've found some piece of useful information in here. If you find a point you'd like to discuss (or would like me to elaborate on further, if you happen to find my long-windedness charming), please do. Obviously, my way is not the only way, there are exceptions to every rule, and mileage may vary.
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