Thursday, July 09, 2009

“Dialogue attribution,” he said, nervously and eagerly and in a manner that ruined the author’s scene, “is very important.”

A few weeks back, Vicki wrote a terrific blog that still has me thinking titled “Stop That! She Said Angrily.” In this column, she pointed out some pitfalls of dialogue. I’d like to revisit the topic and to begin with a disclaimer of sorts: You may think you are the only one writing your books, but here I will argue that your readers write your stories along with you—and that you need to consider that when scripting dialogue.

First, let’s define dialogue in a way that helps fiction writers: It’s the verbal and non-verbal language used by the author to convey a scene in which a conversation takes place. A line in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” speaks to this. You all know the story. A man and women are discussing abortion. The dialogue establishes the story’s tension and continuously amps it up:

“It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It's not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.”

The non-verbal line is very simple: The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. That’s it, but the sentence conveys a great deal of information. Of course, we know what she is doing physically. But we also know what she is like. She is in deep contemplation here, considering her plight, their future, and possibly even feeling guilty, which would open up all kinds of characterization possibilities (does she hold religious belief? etc). And we know what the man is doing—based on Jig’s non-verbal communication, on her reaction to his statement. The man has to be staring straight at her, waiting intently for her answer, which comes much later in the text. Thus, Jig’s physical action becomes non-verbal dialogue here. It is non-spoken communication that actually propels the scene forward.

Surely there is no need for the dreaded ly adverb here. Imagine how the scene would read if Hemingway had written:
“It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said urgently. “It's not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked down.
“I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.”

Only two changes, but the scene is very different, not nearly as unique. It is also not nearly as effective for one simple reason: The author doesn’t allow the reader to play an active role in the scene. Every reader wants to get lost in the scene. Stephen King calls this “the magic” of fiction, that space between the first page of a book and the last when a reader is so lost in the story that the work is not fiction, it is not text on a page, it is simply a place in the reader’s imagination where she has gone unaware that a book is in her hands, that an author has taken her there.

In my Hemingway revision (imagine being able to say that!) the reader has lost that. The writer is now telling the reader what to think. With “urgently,” I might as well have written THIS IS YOUR AUTHOR SPEAKING FROM THE FLIGHT DECK. THIS LINE IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE! No way anyone is missing the author here. And anyone who was lost in my story has been awoken from their enjoyable trance with the subtlety of a tree crashing through their bedroom window. To continue, my insertion of “The girl looked down” drains the characterization from the scene. Readers learn nothing of Jig. Now her actions are not unique. They are entirely expected. In short, readers are given no hint that will lead them to a realization about Jig. She is just looking down. Is she thoughtful? I don’t know. Maybe there’s an ant on the floor. The bottom line is that “the magic” is gone. No one is lost in my story.

Vicki put this best when she wrote, “If you can’t tell by the dialogue that the speaker is angry or cross or suspicious or cool, or in a hurry, then there is something wrong with the dialogue.” I would add only that you also use the surrounding actions—the non-verbal dialogue, if you will—to let your readers develop your characters and to allow them to play an active role in the scene.

5 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great point about non-verbal cues. And Hemingway, the master of crisp writing, was the perfect example for how to do it.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Vicki Delany said...

"Perfect explanation!" she said approvingly.

Donis Casey said...

I was going to say that this explanation is absolute perfection, but I see that Vicki has beaten me to it.

It is, though.

qishaya said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.