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Dialogue in SFF and Beyond (Part One): The Talking Heads Will Get To This Later

by Tracy Townsend

In my work as a teacher and author, I’ve found few things more polarizing for readers than dialogue, excepting perhaps how to spell the word itself. (I am “Team Dialogue With a UE,” though I respect those who prefer its amputee cousin. Sort of. It’s a clash of worlds that may never rise to the fervor of the Oxford Comma Wars, but it, too, has an obvious victor if one cares at all about being clear, sensible, and legible.)

Complaints about dialogue vary: nobody talks like that; nobody talks that much; one should never spell out an accent in prose; characters shouldn’t use contractions even if they pronounce them; no one ever just “says” anything; you can’t “say” a question, you have to ask it; one can’t use “hiss” as a tag without a sibilant sound. About the only agreement I’ve found is that dialogue is both very important in storytelling and, perhaps because of it, very tricky to do well. While I consider dialogue writing a strength of mine (at least insofar as I don’t balk at it and enjoy crafting it), it is particularly fraught in sff because of how we use it to make unlikely scenarios and fantastical worlds feel more genuine. It’s a source of verisimilitude – or, maybe, of “Truthiness,” to borrow a Colbertism.

Here, similar to my previous article on writing combat scenes that serve narrative and character, I’ll write about how dialogue works to establish the critical elements of sfnal verisimilitude. The trouble is, that’s a very big topic, one actual books have been written about, and so this topic will be broken up into two posts. This first one focuses on a few basic techniques for writing quality dialogue in any genre. I’m indebted to my friends Sarah Pinsker, Hugo- and Nebula Award nominated author of “And Then There Were (N-One)” and “Wind Will Rove,” and Caroline M. Yoachim, Hugo- and Nebula Award nominated author of “Carnival Nine,” for offering some of their thoughts about crafting strong dialogue in general. These comments will start us off on strong footing and move us toward a conversation about how to juggle the specific burdens of world-building and reality-shaping sff dialogue carries.

I’ll start with Caroline’s advice, because it’s important for getting yourself through the process of drafting:

“Dialogue is something I find difficult to write, and it slows me down on a first draft. I sometimes know the emotional beats I need to hit with the dialogue without knowing anything about the specific content, so one thing I frequently do in a rough draft is bracket out the dialog: e.g., <something insulting and ominous> and <polite response>.”

In a way, this strategy of seeming avoidance connects with Kurt Vonnegut’s claim that dialogue should advance plot, reveal character, or do both. Caroline uses the drafting process to create notations that put the purpose of an exchange – in building tension, creating relationships, crafting tone – at the heart of not writing the dialogue, making honing and lathing the words themselves a second-level concern. Remember this piece of advice for next month’s article, when we return to the second-level concerns of dialogue in sff in terms of world-building in particular.

Sarah’s advice follows nicely after that point, as it’s about assessing the words you put in a character’s mouth, once you’ve gone beyond the brackets:

“The number one tip I’d give anyone on writing dialogue is to speak it out loud. Have someone else take a part if that’s your thing, or just read all the parts yourself. The point is to get spoken words off the page and into a mouth, where you’ll hear if they sound realistic.

If you want a more advanced exercise, try taking off the tags and seeing if you can still tell who is talking when. Different people have different speech patterns. See if there are tags you can replace with action, to reduce the talking-head scenario. Are they looking at each other as they speak, or is one gazing out the window? Is that person avoiding eye contact or distracted by the cardinal at the bird feeder? The end result should be characters who interact through realistic body language and speech.”

Here we’ve brushed the surface of that “truthiness” in fiction, verisimilitude. Every character has a voice and while not every character plays a role sufficient to develop a robust personal vernacular, how they sound goes toward conveying their personality, their emotional triggers, their self-interest, and so on.

It also goes toward establishing what realistic body language and speech (to riff off of Sarah) looks and sounds like for a certain sort of person in a certain sort of world – a key part of establishing sfnal context.

Next up in “A Place Where It Rains”: how to extrapolate the basic principles of writing strong dialogue into a means of creating strong speculative fiction, with advice from more writers in the field.

A bit about the columnist:

Tracy Townsend teaches creative writing and sf/f literature at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public boarding school for gifted students. She has two dogs and two children, but only one husband. If she's not teaching or writing, she's probably on Twitter (@TracyATownsend) being opinionated about books, comics, movies, and soup. Visit author page

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