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Friday, May 23, 2008

Dialogue—vary sentence structure

Vary sentence structure so it doesn’t get sing-songy.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“That’s good.”

“How’s your mother?”

“She’s just peachy.”

“My dad arrived.”

“Yesterday?”

“Last week.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Enjoying himself.”


Aside from the fact this dialogue as absolutely NO CONFLICT, the sentence structure is unvarying. Here’s another example.

“I talked with the director yesterday.” He jerked his thumb toward the office door.

“I hope that it went well.” Her eyebrows rose.

“We got a lot accomplished.” He nodded enthusiastically.

“Did you make a decision?” She raised her pen to take notes.

“We decided to table it for now.” He shrugged and sighed.

“Who will you hire?” She scanned her list of candidates.

“It’s down to two people.” He raised two fingers.


Here again (aside from NO CONFLICT), the sentences are all about the same lengths, and each dialogue line ends with an action tag. The dialogue cadence is the same for the entire example.

“This is Felicia.” She adjusted the headset’s microphone closer to her mouth.

“Uh, yeah. I don’t know if you’ll remember me. This is, uh, Winnie.” The woman’s voice came out squeakier than Felicia recalled.

“Hello, Winnie. Of course, I remember you. I’m so glad you called me back. I’ve been praying for you.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“How’re you doing?”

“I’m not so mad at that hussy anymore.”

“Really? That’s great, Winnie. Much healthier for you.”

“Okay. If you say so. Anyways, it wasn’t her fault. Not really. But my ex . . . well, now, he’s a totally different story.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve let go of your anger toward the woman.”

“Yeah. She may have enticed him, but he didn’t have to chase after her like a dog to a bone. But that’s okay. He’ll get his.”

“Now, Winnie, that doesn’t sound good. Surely you can see that plotting revenge isn’t good for you.”

The woman laughed. “Maybe not, but it sure feels good. Oh, he’s getting his all right.”

--From Bayou Judgment by Robin Caroll


Here, the sentences vary in terms of length, and each character speaks for different lengths of time, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. The varying length makes for more compelling reading.

3 comments:

  1. I was reading a book on writing by Sol Stein and in it he wrote some great things about writing dialogue.

    One of the things that stuck with me is the idea of "having your characters read from different scripts." i.e. the characters should not only be struggling for their side of the conflict, but they should always be attempting to hijack the conversation itself.

    The other thing that stuck was how he suggested avoiding dialogue that sounds like real life. Here's what he said:

    "Dialogue has to make us interested, curious, tense, or laugh. At its best, it has a liveliness that makes the words seem to jump from the page straight into our bloodstream, like adrenaline. Readers enjoy dialogue. I’ve never heard anyone say that they enjoyed a transcript of recorded speech. If you wander around a crowded mall these days, much of what you might overhear is idiot talk. People won’t buy a novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and strangers."

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  2. It's not just dialogue where the sentence structure needs to be varied. I just critted something where every sentence was a variation of "I did this and then I did that"; "I did this as I did that"; and "While I was doing this (usually an 'ing' word), I did that."

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  3. Bryce, Sol Stein is a terrific writing teacher. What he said is dead on, because it enables you to weave more conflict into your dialogue.

    Linda, very true. Narrative should also have varying sentence structure to avoid sounding sing-songy.

    Camy

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