Monday, January 10, 2011

More on Dialogue

I have read so many books that make me cringe with overuse of dialogue tags, so I'm glad that Peter Abresch has consented to discuss the issue with all of us who struggle with effective dialogue.
Welcome back, Peter.

Hello, Susan.
There are a few techniques to ease the burden of writing group dialogue, along with tags, beats, and body language. First a review from BookMarc 33, our last discussion.

Tags are particular words, actions, or mannerism that have been previously built into single character and are identified only with him/her. Beats are small bits of action specific to a scene. Finally, body language, self explained as any action and character uses such as a shrug.

Okay, let's check out a reworked and edited dinner scene from Bloody Bonsai as an example to point out how it is done given that the POV character is Jim Dandy:

He piled on food from the buffet line and carried it to the table.

1. "Hello, Jim." The black-haired Sana greeted him in her sing-song India English. "We were indeed wondering if you would make it to tea."

2. "Made a quick trip into Bolder Harbor," he said, spreading lunch booty around his place setting. "Needed a sprayer."

3. "I'tis easy to see you believe in a hardy lunch."

4. "A good lunch sets you right up for a good dinner." Smiles around the table and giggling from Tiffany Crew. "I'll do exercises for a couple of days to take it off."

5. "How about a week?" Dodee asked.

6. Kelly Massy nodded. "How about a month?"

7. "How about a year?" The female half of the Miettlinens gave a pursed lipped smile.

8. Clarence Harmoney forked in some potatoes and gravy, and turned to Simon Crew, "I'm in garbage. That is, I own a garbage company. So, you retired?"

9. "Semi-retired. I'm a stockbroker. No clients anymore, but I'm always working on my own portfolio."

10. "Uh huh. That how you met your wife, she a client of yours?"

11. Jim put down his fork. Clarence had asked the question they all entertained; if the twenty-something roommate was his wife.

12. Tiffany dabbed a napkin to her lips. "Not hardly."

13. "Actually"--Simon adjusted his hexagonal glasses and patted her hand--"I was a client of hers."
Let's break it down according to sentence number.

If we didn't know it was Jim Dandy with a plateful of food, we certainly knew it after line 1. In line 2 we don't need to identify him by name because he is responding, and the same for lines 3 and 4 because, even in a group setting around a table, the reader will assume the two are responding to one another until told differently. But if a different character does break in, the reader must be told, which is what happens on line 5 with Dodee identified by an attribute.

Two more speakers are brought in and identified with body language on lines 6 and 7.
We change speakers again on line 8 with a beat--potatoes and gravy--and body language--turn to Simon Crew–and this eliminates the need to identify who is speaking line 9. Also line 10 needs no identification because it is a response to line 9, the reader assuming these two will be talking to each other until told otherwise.

Line 11 is a bit of interior monologue of Jim, who is the POV character, to convey information.
Following this, on line 12 we identify Tiffany with a beat--dabs napkin to her lips--and finally Simon in line 13 with body language. Notice here had we fully developed the glasses tag for Simon, we might have gotten away with the man adjusted his hexagonal glasses.

We need to look at a few other dialogue bits in this scene. In # 2 we have a fractured sentence, and that's okay. We don't speak grammatically correct English and so our dialogue should reflect that. Our dialogue should also be a reflection of the character, the rough and tumble of Clarence's "I'm in garbage," in sentence 8, and the more refined Simon's use of "stockbroker, client, and portfolio" in 9. Our goal should be to make each dialogue bit so character-oriented that using it in itself will be an identifier. I don't think I'm there yet. Or ever will be.

To write dialogue in group scenes we have to render it down to the essentials. Real life dinner scenes are chaotic with everyone speaking at once. In fiction we report only the conversation between the main players, and even then we keep it down to those things necessary to advance the plot, add to the characterization, or give a sense of place. If we wanted to give it a sense of the chaos around the table, however, we could do that by inserting a line or two of body action and/or internal monologue.

"Hello, Jim." The black-haired Sana greeted him in her sing-song India English.

He saw her lips moving, but couldn't hear with the cacophony of kinves and forks clattering on plates and the buzz of conversation interspersed with laughter. He cupped his hand around his ear. "What was that?"

"I say, we were indeed wondering if you would make it to tea."

He nodded, spread his hands to indicate the noise in the place and leaned towards her. "Made a quick trip into Bolder Harbor. Needed a sprayer."
That would be enough to carry the idea in this short scene, but if it was longer we could add something similar eight or then lines down to touch it up a bit, remind readers of the noise.
Three things will help us with all dialogue, not just in a group. First, we need to try to make notes on stray conversations we hear, especially unusual words and sentence structure. Second, read our dialogue out loud and/or into a tape recorder. If it doesn't sound right, it won't read right. It either needs to be rewritten, or broken up. Third, somewhere between the first and last draft, pull out all the dialogue for each character as though it is a separate book, and read it contiguously for continuity. I know, that's a lot of work, but I never said writing was easy, just if we did it right it would be reading easy.

Notice that I've also used some dialect in sentences 1 and 3. We'll talk about using dialect, and using English to explain what is said in a foreign language in BookMarc #35.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Peter:

Thanks for this helpful article. I especially like this tip:

" ... somewhere between the first and last draft, pull out all the dialogue for each character as though it is a separate book, and read it contiguously for continuity."

Best suggestion I've read lately.

As you know, I'm one of your longtime fans, and I love your new book, THE FALTESE MALCOM!

Best wishes,
Pat Browning