Guilty! Guilty as charged. Don't look now but those are my hands in the guillotine (Please Ma, blindfold me first!). And they deserve their grim fate for the sins they have committed. After reading the next chapter in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, I am in abject despair. I have so much to correct in my writing. Time to get on it.
Chapter 6 - See How It Sounds
The problem with dialogue is, more often than not, with the dialogue itself rather than with the mechanics.
There are some mechanical techniques you can use when self editing that will cure one of the most common reason for flat dialogue: formality. (Buy the book to find out!)
The simplest way to make your dialogue less formal is to use more contractions. (This one crucified me to the wall. When I wrote The Sin of Certainty. I was not even thinking about this. I just wrote. Then, one of my proofreaders (thanks Bob) pointed out to me that I NEVER used a contraction. Not in the dialogue, not in the narrative. I hadn't even thought of it, it never crossed my mind that I was writing so formally. It wasn't intentional but it was there. There is another technique mentioned but again, you have to get the book.)
Check to make sure you aren't trying to shoehorn information into the dialogue that doesn't belong there. (I like this. Dialogue is a great way to sneak in hints about a character's past or a setup for a future event, but only if that information is useful to the scene.)
You don't want your characters to speak more fully formed thoughts than they normally would, just so you can get in some information to your readers.
Weed out fancy polysyllabic words.(Guilty, at least at one time. A friend of mine once told me to dumb down my narrative, that I was using too many words that most readers will not be familiar with. My retort was that most people have already dumbed down their vocabulary and they should read the dictionary and not be so lazy. He was right, but I still think people are lazy and like water, they take path of least resistance when it comes to vocabulary. (Yes, I know 'dumbed' is not a word.))
Have your characters misunderstand one another once in a while. (This one gave me pause. I think I unwittingly attempted this with Rose and Mayor Brower in The Sin of Certainty. When I revisit that book, after I am finished blogging on this self editing theme, I am going to work on that relationship because Rose's misunderstanding of Mayor Brower's past is a key element and I think I can improve it. Okay, I know I can improve it.)
Good dialogue isn't an exact transcription of the way people talk but is more an artifice, a literary device that mimics real speech.
Bring your ear into play. (Buy the book. There is several pages about this concept and worth the cost of the book.)
(Okay, this next point is very challenging, to me at least, and I am as guilty as anyone. Because of this single point, I have much to do with my previous writing. I do not think that I have that much dialogue to correct but I know it is there. I took the lazy way out and didn't even know I was being lazy.)
(The section begins with a passage from Huckleberry Finn.) Beginning novelists, even today are often tempted to write dialect-whether it be southern black or Bronx Italian or Locust Valley lockjaw-using a lot of trick spellings and lexical gimmicks. It is the easy way out. (I discussed this with my wife. This is the very reason she stopped reading Huckleberry Finn. It was way too difficult to understand the dialogue.)
When you use an unusual spelling, you are bound to draw the reader's attention away from the dialogue and onto the means of getting it across. (I think there is room, albeit extremely limited, for unusual spelling, but when it is as thick as Mark Twain's depiction of southern black speech, when it makes the reader stop and decipher what is being said, then it is too much.)
So how do you get a character's geographical or education or social background across? (For the answer, see page 110)
It takes courage to write like this, but it is worth the risk.
Explanations, -ly adverbs, oddball verbs of speech, trick spellings-these can't really help your dialogue. They take the place of good dialogue rather than help create it. Accept no substitutes.