During the current editing process of Vengeance Will Come I have no choice but to admit that my dialogue is so wooden that it is in danger of a termite infestation. There’s significant whittling to be done.
Ben’s guide to character dialogue (and what not to do).:
Dialogue should be
comprehensible Easily understood. Even if the character is from an alien race with a different language, culture or technology the readers are still human. Being a linguist or anthropologist shouldn’t be a prerequisite to enjoying the story, so don’t make it overly complex with alien terminology. Recently blogging about inventing words, a comment from reader incbiotic helped me to realise the answer: use new words for new concepts (* mostly).
As a vivacious young reader, I reveled in each and every opportunity to demonstrate my exemplary vernacular by employing sophisticated words.
(The only difficulty was I sometimes accidentally selected the wrong noun; like calling my sister a “faeces”, instead of the intended “fetus”). Sorry, sis.
Though the story is absolutely true, the first paragraph highlights the problem. You may understand what I wrote, but chances are you think I am a pompous fool. The intent of writing is to be understood; so write simply and clearly. The reader wants a story, not a casual walk through a thesaurus. Do not confuse difficult words with wisdom.
(Personally I like having to look the odd-word up in a dictionary – but that is not normal behaviour). I believe this is less of a problem for me now, but it is something I must guard against.
Dialogue should be Natural. This is one of my novel’s problems and why I described the dialogue as ‘wooden’. My characters often speak as though they are staring down the barrel of a news camera with all the accompanying formality and polish.
Even people accustomed to the scrutiny of the public (e.g. rulers, politicians) would speak more naturally when away from the cameras. Humans are lazy; we take shortcuts and use abbreviations and acronyms. Especially if we are in a rush or very comfortable with our audience or subject matter. The language should be natural. We are lazy in speaking and reading, so be kind to your readers.
Dialogue should be Tight. No rambling allowed (* mostly).
Don’t make the reader wade through twice the content to tell them something you could have in half. Keep it tight, on message.
An example, pre-edit (30 words):
Menas answered angrily with contempt in his voice,
“You’re a boy whose face has not been touched by a razor! Look at your arms – no thickness in them at all!”
“You have never shaved… Probably never fought. You are puny in every dimension.”
(Taking a slight detour at the end of this post: all text should be tight, not just dialog. Just to show how bad I was, here’s something from June 2013…)
As I wrote back in June 2013,
At the end of the day the job of an author is to write something that the reader can and will read, not reach some syllable-based bonus points per sentence score.
Character Dialogue (part 2) coming as soon…