Friday, November 13, 2015

Dialogue: Choosing Your Weapon

Happy Friday the 13th!
We're chatting about dialogue this week. And let me say I have had more than my fair share of truly crappy advice regarding dialogue - the worst? "It should sound real!"
Took me a long time to figure out that's the worst move, ever. Dialogue in fiction is not about replicating the natural speech patterns we hear in day to day life. Mainly because most of us would want to gouge out our eyes after the third sentence that began, “And *I* was like . . .”
Dialogue isn’t meant to be a faithful representation of an entire conversation, either. It’s a weapon that each character in your story must choose and then wield to his or her best advantage. Words spoken in the text have several jobs to do: render the internal life of the character, put emotion and conflict on display, and place the story, characters and conflict in time and space.

Example from a WIP – I’ve removed almost all of the business, tags and stage direction. See if you can place the time and location based solely on what’s said and how it’s said. If I’ve done my job, you can.

“Whoa. Whoa, there, Brutus!” a man called into the heated afternoon. “Silas!”
            “Look there. What do you see?” Henry asked.
            “It ain't what I see you got to worry about,” Silas finally said. “It's what I smell.”
            “Death,” Henry said.
            “What is it? What's wrong?” a woman demanded.
            “Sally,” Henry said. “Looks like we've run across another damned massacre. Break out the shovels, boys. Celeste?”
            A slender woman riding a black and white paint with wicked eyes pulled up beside the lead wagon.
            “Town’s no more than a few miles,” Henry said. “Ride on ahead and fetch the sheriff. And a preacher, if they got one.”

If this works the way I imagine it does, it’s the sound of these people talking that puts you in their time and place. Notice that in this dialogue set there’s not a single ‘that’ – it’s a modern addition to speech patterns that isn’t appropriate here. Then there are word choices: ain’t, preacher, damnation – all words that aren’t often used in modern speech. (So yes, this should say American West circa late 1800’s)

Contrast it with this bit from another book:
“Dad. Status.”
“Screwed six ways to Sunday. The ship’s been commandeered. The four of them caught us unaware. No one takes science ships. We . . .”
“Complete. Except that someone’s scrambled my command codes. What in the Three Hells were you thinking, locking me out of my own ship, Alex?”
“SOP, Dad,” she growled. “Could we put a cap on the trade secrets, please?”
The captain’s voice cut off anything her father might have said. “You know what I want you to know, now. So how about we talk trade?”
 This should sound far more modern than the first example – if only because it’s from a science fiction novel. It’s terser. Faster. A more rapid fire query and response set designed to extract maximum information while giving away as little as possible (from the main character’s point of view – this dialogue was written entirely with her goal in mind – find out as much as she can without tipping off the bad guys.) While there’s a bit of military-ish jargon, there’s really nothing here in the dialogue to tell you that this is scifi, but you do get some hint of the conflict between Alex and her father with his comment about his command codes having been scrambled.

The last example I’ll offer should sound different yet again:

“Hey. Ice,” he wheezed. “You’re looking good as always, babe, though I hear they make clothes in colors other than black these days. Ole Zoog was beginning to think you wouldn’t show.”

“I don’t want any crap, Zoog. What the hell is going on?” I demanded. “Did your new boss put a guy on my front door, a line into my computer, and then somehow divine my unlisted cell number? There’s a message being delivered. Care to guess what it is?”

“He doesn’t want you to help me,” he croaked. “Should have known he could reach this far. I told him you couldn’t be corrupted. Not like me.”

“Read a certain way, this could look like the grandmother of all set ups, Zoog. Look me in the eye and tell me it isn’t.”

“I don’t know, Ice. If it is, I’m not in on it. Honest,” he groaned as I hesitated. “I’m in big trouble, babe. I didn’t know where else to go.”
This is meant to place you in a city on the west coast of the US. Maybe the day after tomorrow. The dialogue is supposed to sound modern without being pigeon-holed by a bunch of idiomatic expressions that would date the speakers. At least, that was the idea. Longer arcs of thought and speech here are intended to give you the impression that these people are speaking everything that enters their heads – that this stuff is pouring out unchecked because the scene is starting to go pear-shaped. I don’t know that the dialogue actually does that all by itself. It would have been a more skillfully crafted scene if it did, but hey. Learn by doing, right?

So how do you shape dialogue to convey all you want?

1.     Each of your characters wants something in each scene.

a.      Only one character can win his or her objective

b.     They will each do their damnedest to win

c.      Let the fight begin

2.     LISTEN

a.      Your ear is your best friend when it comes to dialogue

b.     Read someone who writes in the time period and genre you’re writing (Shakespeare sounds totally different than William Congreve and Richard Sheridan, who sound different from the dime novels of the American west, which are different from scifi . . .)

c.      Movies with some modicum of verisimilitude totally count as research. Listen to how different characters pursue their goals via dialogue

d.     In the editing process, read your dialogue aloud. You’ll hear where it doesn’t work and where it does.

3.     Write

a.      Write more

b.     No, more

c.      Keep going


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