Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Speech! Speech!

Let's talk about dialogue, but let's do it via blog so it's written. {Yes, I'm smugly amused with my witty self right now. Yes, please join me in the giggles.}

We know that in most cases we should avoid the opening pleasantries as they are wasted space when something like ‘after the formal introductions, I said…’ can skip us ahead to more active and engaging things.

EXAMPLE A  74 words

     The phone rang. I answered. “Hello?”
     “Hello Jack, it’s Barry. How are you?”
     “Fine, and you?”
     “Good, good. Thanks for asking. How’s Mary and the kids?”
     “Well, Matthew's in track this year. Does a mile in three minutes and works weekends at the grocery. Mark is in gifted classes for science and chemistry and works for old Mac at the tractor supply. Mary...she's a moody bitch anymore but she's healthy as a horse.

There is nothing technically wrong with this. Aesthetically, though…it’s flat and boring as information conveyance goes. (Except that last line, right?) If you're showing a flat and boring character, this could do it, but there are surely better ways to do that as well.

EXAMPLE B   43 better words

The phone rang. It was my old friend Barry. He didn’t call often and when he did it was never just to shoot the shit. After the usual droll conversation starters, a silence lingered. It wasn't like him. I dug in. “What’s wrong?”

You know more from Example B than you do from A, and in fewer words.

The common scripts 
we recite to each other 
on a regular basis are 
beyond boring in our fiction.

That above section aims to minimize unnecessary words. The flip side, below, is dialogue that maximizes each word to become more than the sum of it's parts.

“Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
“It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”
“And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”
“That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”
“Just so… yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”
“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”
“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?”
Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Tyrion smiled. “Lord Varys, I am growing strangely fond of you. I may kill you yet, but I think I’d feel sad about it.”
“I will take that as high praise.”

--A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin

Now there is dialogue that makes you pay attention, makes you think, and gives you cause to worry. Dialogue that is rich. Engaging. Conveying not only information, but sentiment, character, and a sense of place.

This sharpness is not achieved in a first draft. The gist of the conversation, yes. The mood, bits of setting, too, perhaps. But this kind of discussion is honed on the whetstone of understanding that the author has for the motives of these two characters {far deeper than pals checking in...} and crafts those words to achieve the purpose of the scene.

I humbly submit the following excerpt from my novel Vicious Circle (Persephone Alcmedi #1) for you to judge the dialogue:

My gut was twisting with guilt and realizations I didn’t want. Realizations I had to face, regardless. “I agreed to take Vivian’s money and dole out the justice that other humans won’t.”
Silence. Then, “Your hands are shaking.”
“I think my victim may be a Council member. A High Elder or maybe someone protected by one.”
Amenemhab cocked his head. “Victim? Don’t you mean ‘target’ or ‘mark’?”
Wasn’t he going to lecture me about the Rede? “Whatever. I may be writing my own death warrant.”
“Your fear, at least, is justified. Your pain, however, confuses me. It is not all pain for Lorrie’s death and Beverley’s loss. You also feel pain for yourself.”
I stood, wiped my damp palms on my jeans, and wrapped my arms around myself. “Nana has a saying: ‘Once is a mistake, but twice is a habit.’ I’ve never had much use for most of her sayings, but this one . . . this one hurts.”
He knew I’d killed a man before. On accident. This was different. I stared across the field, not wanting to face him. “I’m mentally trying to justify this, but I know that worming my way around the Rede is wrong.”
“Persephone. You are overthinking. If all this is true, if he has killed, then he has already broken the Rede.”
“Me breaking it back in retaliation isn’t right.”
“And what if you are not acting out of vengeance, as the word ‘retaliate’ suggests, but as an instrument of justice?”
I squinted. “Mind-set does not change the action.”
“It doesn’t?”
“No matter how much I validate this situation, no matter how much this guy deserves it, I’ve allowed myself to become an assassin. Even before the deed is done, the intent to do it brands me.” My hands fell limp and empty at my sides. “That’s not who I ever wanted to be.”
The jackal rose too. “The flower sprouts up from the ground when the sun and the rain give the seeds cause to grow. In the right environment, the stem will grow strong and produce a bud that will bloom when the time is right. A rose is a rose, Persephone, and a lily is a lily. They do not choose what color they are or what their petals will look like; they are what their roots have made them. And they can be nothing else.”

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