Wednesday, May 11, 2011

He says, she says... Part Two

Barbara here, with the second installment on creating dialogue. On my April 30th blog, I talked about choosing the right words to convey character, dialect, accents and authentic-sounding speech. But spoken words themselves are not enough to create an effective dialogue scene. Three running pages of speech, with no accompanying tags, descriptors or stage directions, are tedious and confusing. The result is “talking heads”, giving the reader a sense of watching a pingpong game.

Today I talk about the scaffolding that supports the spoken words. These are the descriptive words that frame the dialogue. Support words serve several functions:

  • At a minimum, they identify who is speaking
  • Provide details of setting and props to draw the reader into the scene visually
  • Describe the emotions and behaviour of the characters
  • Provide unspoken, “internal monologue” which adds layers, texture and tension to the actual words the character says.

I am not a believer in “how-to” rules for good writing, other than Somerset Maugham’s famous “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” There is no right or wrong in writing. Different words and styles have different effects, which may all have their place. The key is to know what effect your words are creating and how to control it. That said, there is “better or worse”, so here are a couple of guidelines to choosing the better words to frame your dialogue.

  1. Keep them as simple and minimalist as possible..
    • Use only enough tags to make it clear who is speaking.
    • Use “invisible” words like said and asked, rather than countered, exclaimed, argued...
    • Let the dialogue speak for itself. Avoid explaining why speaker said it or how he’s feeling. ( He was very angry. "I don't give a damn!")
    • Avoid adverbs to characterize speech. Instead, make the dialogue itself convey anger, joy, impatience, etc. or introduce an accompanying action. A search of “ly” will help eliminate these lazy descriptors which tell rather than show.
    • Limit number of characters in a scene. Conversations with more than three characters are very difficult to follow, even with the best tags.

  1. Make sure the supporting words serve at least one of the above functions, and ideally, two or three simultaneously. Any descriptions that don’t contribute to setting, character, or plot should be tossed out.
    • Have speaker perform an action which conveys his mood and character at the same time as it identifies who is speaking. (He slammed the door.)
    • Choose unique, telling actions like “she plucked a speck of lint from her skirt” rather than generic clich├ęs like “she dropped her eyes”.
    • Don’t clutter dialogue with too many actions or support phrases. They break the flow of the scene. Read the scene aloud to see whether there is too much start-and-stop.
    • Use support phrases to vary pacing. Use short, terse dialogue with almost no non-speech in fast-paced scenes, add longer descriptions to slow pace and provide deeper moments of reflection.
    • A little internal monologue goes a long way. As with description and action, it can yank the reader out of the scene and become an annoying distraction. But used carefully, it adds interesting layers, texture, and contradictions which add to the tension of a scene. (“Your cake is delicious, Mildred.” If you like flavoured cement.)

“How to” books often emphasize the value of dialogue scenes in moving the story forward quickly, in pulling the reader directly into the action and in providing relief from heavy prose which can bog down the reader. Some readers skip over descriptions and only read the dialogue. Which is a great pity, since in a well-crafted book, each word and sentence should contribute to the whole. I am currently reading Cool Water by Dianne Warren, which recently won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. I read through 45 pages of descriptive prose and action before encountering more than a line or two of dialogue at a time.

And yet the book works beautifully.

There is no right or wrong.


Rick Blechta said...

Excellent, excellent post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Barbara.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Your post is a keeper, Barbara, for both pros and newbies. Thank you!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Your post is a keeper, Barbara, for both pros and newbies. Thank you!