Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Spaces Between the Lines

"I once heard a composer on the radio say that music wasn't notes but the space between them. The same might apply for dialogue. It is the spaces between the lines that bring the dialogue to life."
~Barry lane


Writing dialogue is tricksy. How much should our characters actually say? When are they saying too much? We need to remember that sometimes the most powerful words are the ones that are NOT spoken. One of my favorite quotes about dialogue is another from Barry Lane. He says, "The best dramatic and humorous dialogue thrives on undercurrents, unspoken pauses that tell us everything we need to know about the characters and their situations."

Keeping secrets is part of being human. We keep things from each other. We even try to keep things from ourselves. I know because I am a big-time master of denial. Therefore, what our characters don't say is equally as important - sometimes even more important - than what they do say. What we leave out deepens our conflict, increases suspense, and builds character.
Situations may seem predictable, but the people who act in them are not. The best dialogue proves this. Whether it's a comic scene or a dramatic scene. Good dialogue is always the spaces between the lines, the things left unsaid.
~ Barry Lane

What is your favorite dialogue advice?

39 comments:

Sara McClung ♥ said...

I still believe the best advice I ever got was to just use the "said" tag. I was taught differently in high school--using words like... exclaimed and whispered and, well, you get the drift.

OH and getting rid of adverbial dialogue tags (ex: he said angrily vs. he said, slamming his fist on the table)

Though I learned both of those a long time ago... So more recently? The best I've received in the past few years is to read your dialogue aloud. Makes a HUGE difference =)

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

This reminds me of a Mark Twain quote: “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” So true, isn't it? Great post! :)

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Dialogue can be tricky if the writer tries to make it too realistic. I can't remember where I heard it but this was good advice I received. Dialogue must further the plot and reflect character. :0)

Shannon said...

Thanks so much for the tips...have a great day!

Christina Lee said...

Tricksy it is!!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I once heard flash fiction described like that: the artful use of spaces (because flash is so economical on the words).

Love your quotes!

Carolyn V. said...

I've been told dialogue is the one thing I can do in writing. (Whew! At least I'm doing one thing right!) But my advice is to visualize your characters, who they are, what their oddities are. It helps a ton. =)

Catherine Denton said...

Never thought about the space in between but I like that. The best advice I've read was keeping action going in between--people moving, squirming, laughing, snorting...

Winged Writer

Bane of Anubis said...

Great post. Dialogue's one of those tricky beasts. Because it comes so easy for many, it's easy to abuse and overuse (I know I'm guilty from time to time).

Kittie Howard said...

A very thoughtful post (and the sign of a great post). I once read that dialogue over three lines was wasted. As a reader, I pretty much think that's true. Also, I skim/avoid dialouge that is too gritty. If a writer has to type in the gutter, well, there's not much there, is there? I know rough language is out there (and I'm no saint) but constantly reading it is a turn off.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Reading dialogue out loud is SO important. In film school our scenes weren't graded until they were read out loud in front of the class by randomly assigned 'actors'. Taught me that lesson real quick.

Another critical one? Remove all the dialogue tags, give it to someone else to read, and see if they can still tell who's talking (within reason). Your characters voices should be THAT distinct.

Great post #2--as always. :)

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Where's your dialogue blogfest entry, girlfriend? ;)

Elaine AM Smith said...

I guess I go with the throw out the tags advice.
Have you finished SHIVER? Did a continuity error get passed everyone involved?

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

For me the best advice was read your work aloud, and use "said" as a dialogue tag. I lost count of the number of things like "she spat" or "she grunted" tags I cut. heehee.

Myrna Foster said...

I needed this, Shannon. Thank you!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

SO true!

salarsenッ said...

Great post, and Barry Lane has definitely got a leg up on dialog.

What I do is as I'm writing a dialog scene, I get up from my chair, walk around, and talk it out--literally. My kids think I'm nuts, but that's all right. It really helps me. Could be the theater nut in me, don't know. ???

I'll say it this way, then that way...Eventually, one way 'feels' right. It's like getting to know the character myself. ";-)

I usually ask my character what he/she has to say. They 'always' tell me.

Sheri~

Tara said...

I have the conversation in my head. Then I have it out loud. Then I put it on paper. Then I read it aloud. Then I cut, cut, cut.

Yeah, use said, that's a big one - and hard to follow!

Cleverly Inked said...

You are so right. I just finished a book which had unwritten words that made the book.

As for the Birthday Phenmenon...It is so much work. I am about done with it and good I wont be sad to see it end.

Terresa said...

The spaces between the lines. Yes! I agree.

Jana said...

Guess what became official today?

Mary Aalgaard said...

I am always listening to real life dialogue. How do people talk? What do they say? What is funny? Reading out loud is great, and I like the advice of one of the other commenters that random "actors" read the dialogue. That must have been great. I'm planning a live read-through for my current drama-in-progress.

SAMUEL PARK said...

This is a fantastic post, and I couldn't agree more! I personally love understated dialogue full of subtext. Maybe not to the extreme of Hemingway, where we don't even know what the characters are talking about, but I certainly love the minimalism of Peter Cameron, and Michael Cunningham. My favorite advice is that dialogue has to entertaining--unless it doesn't have to. Nami Mun's characters are hilarious, and that comes through mostly in the dialogue.

Kristin said...

Shannon, you are so wise. I'm reminded of something every time I stop by! Thanks!

Tina Laurel Lee said...

I love the quotes! They are full of brilliance. What a supremely helpful post!!! I am right in the midst of bunches dialog revision and this will help. Because my characters do so want to hold things back!And yet they have to talk...

Palindrome said...

Sadly, dialogue is not one of my strong points. I'm trying though. And getting better.

Theresa Milstein said...

I love the dialogue quote too. This weekend, I took a workshop on dialogue, which I'll probably post about soon. The instructor read a quote from Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. She also said it's what's left unsaid that's as important. But it's a leap of faith to leave the unspoken words, don't you think?

Susanne Drazic said...

Great blog post Shannon. I liked the quotes you shared. I have some trouble when writing dialogue. I think it sounds so stiff. I just have to keep working at it.

Shelley Sly said...

Agreed! What is not said, or the time it takes in between saying things, is just as important as what's said. Great point!

Tracy said...

I love dialogue!! It's one of my strongest traits as a writer.

I've absorbed all sorts of great tips about writing it, but I'm drawing a total blank right now. :o(

Jemi Fraser said...

I love reading and writing dialogue - it's where the characters become real.

The best advice I've received is to read it aloud. Then you know if it works.

Slamdunk said...

I have only experimented with dialogue in my blog posts so I am new to this. I appreciate your advice as well as the commenters--reading aloud and sticking mostly with "said" makes sense.

Jonathon Arntson said...

Dialogue is one of the hardest, scariest, and most fun things for me to write. I act out the scenes and make sure the tension of the scene is properly built up.

VR Barkowski said...

Great post, Shannon!

The four most important lessons I've learned about dialogue:
1. Read all dialogue aloud (and narrative too, for that matter).
2. Less is more. Clip speech. It's rare for folks to speak in complete sentences esp. in casual conversation.
3. Often, what we don't say is more important than the words. Don't ignore nonverbal communication and subtext in dialogue.
4. Written dialogue should not be a transcript of how we really talk. We humans engage in a lot of verbal exchanges where we don't say anything:

"Hi, how are you?"
"I'm fine, how are you?"
"I'm great. What do you think of all this rain we're having?"


No one wants to read this on the page!!!!! Dialogue should always move the story forward in some way.

Jennie Englund said...

VR has some good points!

I like knowing what the character is doing while they're talking. I think it's really telling. Are they listening? Or are they watching stocks rise and fall on the computer?

Sorry to bring my marriage into it...

Jody Hedlund said...

So very true, Shannon! I love reading dialog that keeps me guessing. And so I love writing it too!

laurapauling said...

I love your advice. It's so true!

laurapauling said...

I love your advice. It's so true!

Heather said...

Sounds like Barry has some great dialogue advice. My favorite however would have to be, cut out the boring small talk. ;)

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