Yada, Yada, Yada: The Role of Dialogue

By Mike MacLean

Dialogue_ctr_2 Working on the screenplay got me thinking about the nature of dialogue. 

It can be argued that dialogue plays two major roles in storytelling. 

First, it may expose something about a character–their background, personality, temperament, etc. 

Secondly, it can be a means to move the story along, revealing important details about the plot.

But is one of these more important than the other?

Those who write character driven stories would likely argue that dialogue is best when it helps paint human portraits.  When done well, slang or accents are like brushstrokes, adding layers of color and depth.  They wrap the raw bones of a character with flesh so they read like real human beings.

However, when not done well–when reduced to the level of stereotype–slang and accents can have the reverse effect.  Hit a false note, and you risk making your reader cringe.  Instead of ringing true, the character’s voice sounds like a construction, and the character then becomes merely a plot device.  Nothing pulls me out of a story quicker.

Even if dialogue rings true, too much regional flavor can wear thin.  The British pulp classic Yardie is a prime example. N69468_3  

I admired author Victor Headly’s ruthless, stripped-down prose.  His dialogue, however, was so filled with Jamaican and British vernacular that I got lost in all the verbiage. 

I didn’t doubt the authenticity of Headly’s characters, and their words added spice to the story.  But all in all, I would have preferred to know what the hell they were talking about.  At least once in a while. ‘ere da ting star, guess me no boo-yackiest!  (For the record, I still give Yardie a thumbs up and would like to see more of his work hit the States)

Those who see dialogue primarily as means to move the plot along face the opposite problem: creating dry, inhuman voices.  Sure readers will understand every word uttered, but we won’t care because we won’t identify with the characters.  We won’t feel they are truly human.

In my work, I tend to write lean dialogue with occasional dashes of vernacular sprinkled in for flavor.  When it works, I feel I’ve skated between the two roles of dialogue, achieving the best of both worlds.  When it doesn’t work, (which is more often than I’d like to admit) my characters sound like automatons, each speaking with the same voice.

So let’s hear it, murder fans. 

What style of dialogue do you find most effective? 
OR 
When reading dialogue, what makes you roll your eyes?

9 thoughts on “Yada, Yada, Yada: The Role of Dialogue

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Regional dialogue does easily get precious, sometimes outright intrusive, but I love people who do it well (Ken Bruen, Margaret Maron…)

    I don’t just want dialogue to be character revealing and move the plot along. I want it to be musical and witty and metaphoric and startling and quotable. Good dialogue to me is a combination of music and sex – an art in itself. Of course it shouldn’t distract from the plot, but when dialogue is merely functional, a book is less.

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  2. Naomi

    I fall into the camp of writing dialect that drives some people crazy (in not a good way). But then as many people if not more tell me that’s one of their favorite things about my series. Different strokes for different folks, I say. I think for the evolution of any kind of ethnic/regional literature, there needs to be some who experiment with dialect. Without that transition, I think the role of language is being ignored too quickly. Richard Wright really got upset with Zora Neale Hurston’s use of dialect. What other literary device can piss people off? Just shows you how powerful dialect is.

    That said, I’m taking a break to create new works without the integration of dialect. Hopefully there will be something else that will rile people up. A bland reaction is the worst reaction of all.

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  3. pari

    Mike,

    When I write my first draft of a novel or story, it’s almost entirely in dialog. That’s where the characters become individuals, where they reveal their motives and the way they think about things. They also carry the story forward in ways that I doubt I’d be able to sit down and outline.

    Alex is right about dialog serving even more of a purpose than what you outlined; when done well, it brings pleasure in and of itself.

    I almost never use dialect of any sort. Characters can speak distinctly without it –though there are certainly masters of this approach such as those cited already (And, of course, Naomi!).

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  4. Mike MacLean

    Alex,

    Who is this Ken Bruen guy people keep bringing up? Of course, he is an example of regional dialects done right.

    “…it shouldn’t distract from the plot, but when dialogue is merely functional, a book is less.”

    That’s the main point I wanted to drive home. When done less than expertly, dialogue can distract from the plot rather than enrich the story.

    Naomi,

    “What other literary device can piss people off?”

    Why do you think ethnic/regional dialogue pisses people off? Does it illustrate our differences rather than unite us?

    Pari,

    “I almost never use dialect of any sort. Characters can speak distinctly without it.”

    How do you get your characters to speak distinctly without the use of dialect?

    Reply
  5. pari

    Mike,It’s the words they use and how they brandish them. It’s what they talk about, what they spend their breath on. You also put in enough narrative to tell us more.

    Here’s a brief passage from THE SOCORRO BLAST. The book is written in 1st person. Judy has just confronted my protag Sasha and Harriet has come outside to see what’s going on. Sasha is addressing Judy first.

    Tell me if you get a sense of Sasha and Harriet.

    “Stop calling her a ‘kid.’ She’s my niece and she’s lying in the hospital right now. Some idiot nearly blew her arm off.” I’d started crying. What a marvelous way to assert control.

    “Oh, that’s just terrible,” said the other lady, coming to my side and reaching up to put an arm around my shoulder. “How would you like a nice cup of tea?”

    “I can’t. I have to be somewhere.”

    “How about something stronger?” She let go and regarded my face. “Whiskey?”

    “Harriet,” said Judy, a hand to her chest in apparent mortification.

    “She looks like a whiskey drinker to me.”

    “No, thank you.” If only I could take her up on her offer, could postpone my upcoming meeting.

    “Well, at least come in and wipe that face off. You don’t want people to know you’ve been crying. It’ll just make them pity you and make you look namby-pamby.” She’d transformed into everyone’s favorite grandma, but the glint in her eyes said she drank acid for breakfast.

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  6. JT Ellison

    Oh, how cool that we got a sneak peek at SOCORRO out of Pari today. Nice job, Mike!

    I love dialogue, love to play with it, see what my characters say. Sometimes I can’t believe what comes out of their mouths. That wasn’t always the case. I used to have real trouble with dialogue. It all sounded stilted and ridiculous. After spending a lot of time listening to how people talk, I got better.

    I think it’s vital that every story is told with the people telling it in mind. I don’t want people to read Taylor’s words and think it’s JT speaking. THAT’S the dynamic I find most fun. And that’s what makes my eyes roll too. If I know that the words are put in the characters mouth to make the writer look better, or to make some kind of statement, I get very turned off.

    I do use dialect and vernacular when appropriate. I hope it adds to the story rather than detracts.

    Nice analysis, Mike!

    Reply
  7. Rob Gregory Browne

    Actually, if we’re speaking strictly about screenwriting, dialog is probably the least important aspect of your script.

    Yes, we’ve all seen great movies with great lines, but for the most part the important thing in movies is what moves — the images — not what the characters say.

    Novels and plays, yes, of course, it’s all important. But imagine a Hitchcock film and ask yourself how many lines of dialog you remember.

    But you sure as hell won’t forget a guy running from a crop duster, and you won’t forget a fight atop the statue of liberty.

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