On Writing: Creative Intersections — Point of View and Dialog

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about point of view and the ways in which it could help us address nearly all the narrative problems we face when writing.  In comments to the post, Donald “SagaBlessed” Kirby, mentioned that making our dialog feel natural can sometimes be difficult, which is absolutely true.

More to the point, of all the writing problems that point of view can help us address, perhaps none is better suited to a POV solution than that of contrived dialog.  Frankly, I can’t believe I left it out of my previous post.

Here at MW, we’ve discussed dialog quite a bit over the years, and I’m going to do my best not to cover the same ground in this post.  This is not a post about how to write dialog, or how to make the spoken words themselves sound natural. (Carrie did this very well in a post that went up about a year ago. )  Rather, I want to look at ways in which POV in particular can help us make dialog our come to life.  Through the lens of point of view, I’m going to focus on three specific elements of dialog:  conveying important information, attributing spoken lines to the correct character, and giving each conversation a narrative arc.

Let’s start with the information we hope to give to our readers through our spoken scenes.  Thinking about it broadly, there are really only a few ways to tell our readers stuff.  We can do it through simple exposition, or what would properly be termed internal monolog — this is where the point of view character thinks to herself about some circumstance or situation that is crucial to the plot and her personal life.  We can have our readers receive the information at the same time our point of view character does — by having that character read something (a letter, a diary, a book) or watch something (the news, a live event, a movie or play) or overhear another conversation.  Or we can have our point of view character talk about those circumstances or issues with another character.  Those are basically our three choices.  Any other approach involves stepping out of point of view to take on an omniscient voice, which we don’t want to do.

Two of those three choices (internal monolog and receiving the information) are fairly passive.  Dialog is more active, more dynamic, more entertaining for our readers.  But, as Donald says, it’s tricksy, because it is the one method that can seem most forced and contrived.  How do we prevent our dialog from becoming so laden with information, and so directed toward our narrative goals, that it no longer feels natural?  By being true to point of view, of course.  

What do I mean?  

Our own real-life conversations sound natural because we say what we need to say to get our point across, without giving those with whom we’re speaking more information than they would need.  Our characters should do the same.  If, for instance, I talk to my wife about my work, and I mention Tor Books, I wouldn’t have to tell her that Tor Books is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy headquartered in New York.  I could tell her that, but she’d look at me funny and wonder why I was telling her stuff that she already knew.  In the same way, our characters should not offer unnecessary information in their conversations, because it will sound just as foolish. If we can put ourselves in the minds of our characters well enough to understand their worlds, their emotions, their motivations, and their relationships with other characters, we should also be able to approach their conversations with the same assumptions and knowledge that they bring to those encounters.  The result should be more realistic dialog that conveys the information our readers need, without sounding forced.

But, of course, there is more to dialog on the written page than just the lines our characters speak.  We also need to let our readers know who is saying what, in a way that is both clear and interesting.  Point of view helps with this as well.  

Dialog attribution is one of the hardest elements of writer to master in part because there are so many different thoughts on how to approach it.  Almost all editors and writers agree that in today’s market, you should avoid said-bookisms.  But beyond that, you will hear some folks say that using “said” and “asked” is fine because the words become, for all intents and purposes, invisible.  Others will tell you to avoid these sorts of dialog tags entirely, and rely solely on the spoken words themselves and descriptions of action and gesture to convey who is speaking.  I fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  But ultimately, you need remain true to the perceptions of your narrating character.  Not every spoken line can or should be accompanied by a gesture or facial expression.  But your POV character should pick up on visual clues at key moments in a conversation.  A visual detail offered as the most important lines are spoken — a twitching at the corners of the mouth, a hardening of the muscles around the jaw, a nervous action or gesture such as balling up torn pieces of a napkin or bouncing one’s leg — can often place emphasis on important emotional touchstones in a discussion.  More, they are the types of visual clues we often look for in our own conversations, and so they are the things our POV characters should be looking for.

So, when we’re attributing dialog it is fine to leave a few lines untagged; context will tell the reader who is speaking.  And it’s fine to use “said” and ‘asked” as tags, as long as we don’t overuse them.  But by using more creative details like gesture, facial expression, and action, we can make it clear who has spoken AND we can allow our POV characters to guide us through the emotional dynamics of the conversation.

Finally, we can use point of view to give each spoken scene a sense of narrative arc.  Some of you may remember Vernor’s Law, which is something I have referred to here in the past.  The “Law” comes from award-winning author Vernor Vinge, and paraphrased it goes like this:  When writing a story or book we seek to do three things — fill in background, deepen character, and advance plot.  At any given moment in a book, we should be accomplishing at least two if not all three of those things. If we are doing only one of them or, God forbid, none, then our narrative has stalled.

So, following Vernor’s Law, each spoken scene has to have two or three purposes, and chances are at least one of them will relate to the goals and wants of our point of view character or a character close to her/him.  Put another way, the narrative arc of a conversation should be dictated by the motivations of your POV character, or by those of one of the people to whom s/he is talking.  (If the latter, then chances are our POV character will sense that the person with whom s/he is conversing has an agenda.)  That sounds pretty elementary, but it means that scenes with dialog should move with purpose; they should not meander or stall.  Again, point of view allows us to propel our narratives by linking story elements with the perceptions and emotions of our narrating characters.

This is a long post already, and there is plenty here for us to discuss.  So let’s talk about dialog from the perspective of POV. What problems have you encountered with your spoken scenes?  How might you solve them with point of view?

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
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14 comments to On Writing: Creative Intersections — Point of View and Dialog

  • One dialog issue I’ve noticed (it doesn’t have anything to do with POV, so I’m sorry for taking a sidestep) – inexperienced writers hate to use contractions. I don’t know why writers avoid them so much, but contractions happen naturally in speech, so skipping them makes written conversations sound stilted and fake.

    “I am going to kill Bob, and you had better not try to stop me,” versus “I’m going to kill Bob, and you’d better not try to stop me.” Both deliver the same information, but one sounds like someone talking and the other doesn’t. Yes, there are times to avoid contractions, especially when you want to emphasize a point. Most of the time, though? Smash those words together.

  • […] Misty Massey, Mindy Klasky, John Hartness and several other wonderful writers. The post is called “On Writing: Creative Intersections–Point of View and Dialog”.  It’s a follow-up to a post I wrote a few weeks ago about the ways in which staying true to […]

  • sagablessed

    Misty…I use contractions in spoken dialogue and thoughts. Otherwise I don’t. If it is a character taking in the scenery for a set up, I won’t, as I want to slow the action down. I will in fight scenes or when something is happening as I want to action to move. Likewise with sentences. Slow action = longer sentences/action = shorter sentences. I hope this formula is right. And if it ain’t, tough for the editor. It’s part of my “voice”.

    (And there’s an idea for a contributor to post. Defining ‘Voice’.)

    David, good post.
    My biggest issue with dialogue is some have complained (usually older folk) is I try -within reason- to match the words and cadence of real teenagers, and some say it sounds like valley girls. Using terms like “crae-crae”, and “I go” instead of “I said”; or “He was like all up in my grill”.
    My response is “tough noogies”. I listen to teens and college-age kids when they talk, so in UF when they are around, I use terminology they would. Not all the time, as it get tiring for me to read. I suspect it does for the kids as well. But I do use enough to give the impression of said age group.
    Is that wrong? Would it put off an editor?
    Inquiring minds want to know.
    (If you get that reference, you have just dated yourself, LOL.) :D

  • Misty, I totally agree, and would argue that it is, in fact, a POV issue. IF your character has a reason for avoiding contractions, then by all means avoid them. There is a character in the Thieftaker series, Gaspar Mariz, who is Portuguese by birth. English is his second language and he is not comfortable enough with it to use contractions. Now, he is not a POV character, but you take my meaning. There are some characters for whom this would be the logical choice. But if your character is not one of them, then having him/her speak in that way is, in fact, counter to his/her POV.

    Donald, oh, I get the reference . . . I see nothing wrong with it at all, and have done the same when writing contemporary stuff. Particularly putting in the “likes” and “you knows” and similar mannerisms. Making your teenagers sound like teenagers is good writing. If older readers complain, tell them to spend more time with teens so that they can see that what you’re doing is spot on. And you’re right not to do it all the time; a little goes a long way.

  • David, I think you got it all in one spot.
    The only thing I can add is: I’ve been studying POV in long-running series, because I finally have one, and inquiring minds need to know this stuff. Yeah. Okay. *I* need to see if things change and figure out why. And how. And while there isn’t enough in my brain yet to write a post on it, I do have thoughts that relate to long-running series and POV.

    Oddly, the way an author uses POV seems to change (usually after book 7, but I’ve seen it in book 6, and book 8). They seem to go one of four ways: The character makes a total leap into acting/thinking like someone else; The writer gives us a lot more backstory, filling in blanks and beefing up the characters; The writer loses place and seems to find nowhere to go and the POV gets mushy and confusing and of course so does the plotline; The writer introduces a new element (character) to bring new conflict into a tired series.

    The way the writers make changes that really work for the POV, however is number two: the writer gives us a lot more backstory, filling in blanks and beefing up the characters. It seems when a writer loses his way, if he’ll just dive deeper into POV, the conflict jumps back up and the story continues to improve.

    Currently I am reading the latest book (after a 3 week long read-fest of the series) of the Cal and Niko Leandros series by Rob Thurman. She did the *diving into POV and backstory* method and her books are more intense now than early in the series. It’s well done. And it’s making me learn and read analytically, which I like.

  • sagablessed

    Faith: Interesting insight, and something to keep in mind if I decide this current WIP may be more than one.

  • That’s fascinating, Faith, and something I haven’t yet had to deal with. That said, I can see that with a few more Thieftaker books I’m going to reach a point where I need to do … something. If you can find a way to turn this into a post, I for one would love to read it.

  • Nathan Elberg

    If the reader knows something about a character that a speaker is discussing, will the reader feel cheated if the speaker leaves it out? More to the point: Sharon wrote an important note, and Wendy is explaining to Osnat who Sharon is, and why Osnat should trust her. The reader and Wendy know about something important that Sharon did 5,000 years earlier, but Wendy doesn’t mention it. I felt that there was too much information in the dialog already, and I didn’t want to overload the reader. But Sharon’s earlier action is an important reflection of her character. Would the reader ask “hey, why the heck didn’t Wendy mention it,” and feel cheated? Do we go minimalist, or fill it all in?

  • Nathan, that’s a great question. I don’t know the ins and outs of your story, and am not sure from your brief description here that I have the details right. But let me address the question this way. Sometimes the fact that a character has information and does NOT speak it aloud can be very powerful. If a POV character knows something about the person with whom s/he is speaking, but doesn’t mention it in the conversation, you can still have the information be in the POV character’s head. S/he can be aware that the person s/he is talking to is hiding something; the POV character can acknowledge that they are talking around an issue — the 600 pound elephant in the room, as it were. If you have set things up so that the POV character is NOT the person with the unspoken information, then that POV character can sense the other person in the conversation holding something back, without knowing what it is. The particulars are hard to address, because there are so many possible permutations. My point is this: Having something hang unspoken in a conversation can be very powerful and very effective from a narrative standpoint. There are lots of ways to use it to increase dramatic tension. POV is, in part, about allowing your reader to be privy to a character’s thoughts and secrets, and you can use that. Am I being clear enough?

  • Razziecat

    Using dialog to advance the narrative arc is the one that I always have to keep in mind. I love it when characters spark off each other, when dialog gets rapid-fire and really shows their personalities, but I have to take care not to get lost in the byplay. I’ve learned to slow down a bit and think about what I want to convey: What important information can I weave into the dialog that will move the story along? And how do I phrase it to stay true to each speaker’s POV and motivations? When I know the answers to those questions, my dialog is so much more dynamic, and I can keep things moving with fewer words, as long as they’re the right words ;)

  • Nathan Elberg

    Thank you, David. I now feel better about holding something back, which is something I did a number of times in Quantum Cannibals. I don’t want the reader getting ticked off at me. Your answer was quite clear, given the vagaries of the question.

  • Razz, I find myself doing the same thing. I LOVE writing dialog, and sometimes I get caught up in the fun of throwing together two characters, and I forget that their conversation has to have purpose, direction, narrative meaning. And so, yes, I have think it through with care, even as I still allow myself to have fun with it.

    Nathan, very glad to have helped a bit.

  • I’ve found a challenge while writing first-person, because I can’t switch POV in the same way. So what I’ve found has helped is figuring out exactly what information can or should be shared at what point, and what can be withheld. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, given that it’s dual first-person POV, but right where I’m at, the two characters haven’t met, so it’s two completely different stories that only the reader can connect.)

  • quillet

    Ha, yes, I have the same problem as Razzie. Dialogue is so much fun, I often get carried away just letting my characters talk. Sometimes I have to rein it in as I go, but other times I just let it happen, and get out the red pen afterward.