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Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’

I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical, of sorts, except I’m not a teacher, I didn’t get paid for it, and I didn’t travel anywhere. Perhaps I should re-phrase: I quit blogging for the last three months because I simply didn’t have time while trying to create a new website for LDStorymakers, an author’s guild to which I belong. (I’m the Director of Communications for the group and, hence, am over their online presence among other things.)

In any case, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post the 14 tips Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club and other novels) shared during a writer’s retreat I attended in Maui some six or seven years ago. Keeping in mind that she writes literary fiction, here they are:

  1. Don’t let the setting disappear during your dialogue. Remember, the dialogue is happening during a particular time and in particular place and the reader needs to be there with the characters as they talk. So you, as the writer, cannot afford to disengage from those surroundings.
  2. To keep the reader on track with who’s talking, (a) never use a verb other than “said” with dialogue, (b) never use an adverb to modify “said” (as she put it, “The adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb.”) (c) express movement by a person before or after talking, and (d) start a new paragraph every time another person begins to talk. She did say you can use an occasional “asked,” but it’s almost impossible to overuse “said.” Also, consider not using a tag at all. If you have a character do something and then a line of dialogue, the reader will connect the dots.
  3. If a line of dialogue is funny, let it stand on its own. Don’t try and prop it up with a smile or laughter written in.
  4. Don’t fatten the dialogue by adding pauses (like umm, er…, etc.). In place of a pause, break up the sentence naturally by putting “she said” or a character’s movement in the middle of it (and the movement should be something bigger than shrugging or smiling…she said there are far too many shrugs and smiles).
  5. Generally, avoid ellipses (…) in dialogue.
  6. In a conversation, frequently the first and last phrases can be cut. You don’t need all the niceties. Start and end where it’s really interesting.
  7. Remember that dialogue is usually much more about how people imagine they are than how they really are. It’s kind of a performance, so you, as the writer, can juxtapose how they really are with how they present themselves to others. Don’t be afraid to bring out the hypocritical side of your characters in your dialogue.
  8. In creating dialogue, always ask “What does this person want?” rather than “How does this person feel?” She said that, at heart, we are all pretty selfish creatures and we’re always angling for something when we speak.
  9. Remember there is almost always a power dynamic between any two people talking, with one having more power and the other having less. This means one character will talk more and the other less in any scene…and that dynamic will change from conversation to conversation depending on the scene. The one in power will not always be the same as the story progresses.
  10. In her opinion, dialogue is not good at all in advancing plot. It’s good for tone and building on the character. In fiction, you often show and sometimes tell, but good dialogue is almost always showing, and not telling. (My other instructor at the retreat, Gail Tsukiyama, disagreed with her on this point about dialogue not being good for advancing plot, but did concede that good dialogue should always show more than it tells.)
  11. Good dialogue keeps you, as the writer, invisible by not being patently helpful. It should feel natural…something they’d actually say, not what you need them to say.
  12. Use dialogue to help pull in things outside the arc of the story that are interesting or help set your story’s time or place. This can particularly be done by using conversations overheard by the main character.
  13. Good dialogue makes the work more real and less planned. You can do this through eavesdropping (For example, imagine having one of your characters overhear this piece of dialogue: “I don’t know what else I can tell you. She rolled down the window, he jumped out, and the gator got him!”  If the reader had been drifting along in the story by this point, that piece of dialogue, or something similar, would certainly wake him up as long as it came across as something credible the character would overhear) or by undermining a lying character’s credibility (remember that liars tend to say the same thing two or more times in an effort to get their story across). Misunderstandings make for great dialogue (when people hear a word incorrectly, for example, funny conversations result).
  14. Finally, remember that dialogue is the fun part and it doesn’t need to match what’s going on in the story. (This last approach applies more to literary fiction than genre fiction and is particularly reflective of Ms. Fowler’s style of writing.)
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Readers, particularly those who read a lot, love to be able to pick up on clues early in the story that might point to where the plot or a certain character is headed. They also don’t always have perfect memories and may well have forgotten an important point made earlier in the story. That’s why it’s important to use dialogue, at times, to either foreshadow coming events or remind the reader of something important that was established earlier.

Here’s an excellent example, in my opinion, of foreshadowing in a bit of dialogue from Leah in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible:

“It’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo, and sometimes I want to live here forever.”

Those of you who have read the story will know exactly what I’m talking about and the rest of you can no doubt make an educated guess. (By the way, if you haven’t read this, you really ought to.)

I found another terrific example of foreshadowing early on in the book Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott:

“You did well to find Elizabeth. Find Elizabeth, find the seventeenth century, we always say. She has a gift.”

“You talk about her as if she’s still here.” I put my hand to the back of my neck suddenly. Something—the wind, a twig, a wind-blown leaf—had touched me there.

“Oh, but she is still here. I haven’t seen her yet, but she’s here all right. There are others here too. Don’t you feel them?”

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This is more useful in genre fiction, particularly thrillers, but nearly all dialogue needs to move the story along in some way.
An obvious example from “The Hunger Games,” when Peeta discovers Katniss still hanging around after the cracker jacker attack:
“What are you still doing here?” he hisses at me. I stare uncomprehendingly as a trickle of water drips off a sting under his ear. His whole body starts sparkling as if he’s been dipped in dew.
“Are you mad?” He’s prodding me with the shaft of the spear now. “Get up! Get up!”
I rise, but he’s still pushing at me. What? What is going on?
He shoves me away from him hard. “Run!” he screams. “Run!”
(I might point out that a lot of tension is created through the use of few words here. You don’t always need a lot of dialogue to advance action, but generally you’ll see more of it in genre fiction.)

However, literary fiction is a different beast. In literary fiction, dialogue is sparse and sometimes doesn’t even need to match what’s going on in the story. But I’ll have more to say about that later.
In tomorrow’s posting, I’ll briefly tackle foreshadowing or reminding through dialogue.

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Another function of dialogue in fiction is to help set the scene. This can involve actual description within the dialogue tags, or it can mean setting the tone or feeling of the scene through dialogue.
J.K. Rowling does the first well in “Harry Potter.” For example, in this scene from “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” in which Harry begins the dialogue:
“What’s happened?” he [Harry] asked Ron and Hermione, who were sitting in two of the best chairs by the fireside and completing some star charts for Astronomy.
“First Hogsmeade weekend,” said Ron, pointing at a notice that had appeared on the battered old bulletin board. “End of October. Halloween.”
“Excellent,” said Fred, who had followed Harry through the portrait hole.

Even if you’d never seen the movies, you could begin to imagine the Gryffindor Common Room through these few exchanges of dialogue, in which brief snatches of the setting have been given.
As for setting the tone of the scene, consider this example from Carol Lynch Williams’s “The Chosen One,” in which one of the elders of the polygamous community has just arrived:
“Two things,” he says before any of us says a word, holding up his fingers to prove it. “I’m here for two things.”

I think I’ve stopped breathing, but I listen.
“Number one. Sister Kyra. I would like to have you over to dinner. A date so we can get to know each other better. Tomorrow evening.”

He doesn’t even wait for me to answer. A date?
“And number two, where is the baby from last night?”

Father stands now, loosening his arm from around my shoulders. “Mariah?” Father says.
“Screaming like that,” Uncle Hyrum says. “And in front of the Prophet. It was too much, Richard. Too much.”

“She’s not even a year old,” Mother Sarah says.
Uncle Hyrum looks at my mother like he could slap her. “Don’t speak, Sister Sarah, unless I’ve spoken to you first.”

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The author, Elmore Leonard, once said,

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.”

While that may be true, in too many instances doing so would make for a pretty lousy read. You have to be careful not to overdo it so as to make it sound stilted. Here’s a bad example (again provided by Rita Mae Brown):

“As you know, Bob, we’ve been stuck on this desert island for twenty years, eating only the coconuts that grow on the one tree and fish which we catch with our hands.  We have several vitamin deficiencies, and you’ve been picking your nose this whole time.  Stop it, or I’m going to kill you!”

Brown points out that a better tactic would be to dramatise the exposition and use only one line of dialogue, as follows:

“Ted pounded the coconut open with a rock. It wasn’t quite ripe yet, but he was so tired of fish, and his fingernails stung in the salt water where they cracked and peeled. Bob sat on the beach a few yards away. He was picking his nose again. Again. “Stop it!” Ted screamed and picked up the rock he had used to smash the green coconut into meaty fragments.

Do you see how the scene has now come to life for the reader?

Here’s an extended example of dialogue (from Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall), which is skillfully written to reveal a lot without sounding stilted. In this scene, written from Cromwell’s point of view, Alice More, the wife of Sir Thomas More, is visiting Cromwell on her husband’s behalf:

“Well! When I came here before it was a musty old place. My husband used to say,” and he notes the past tense, “my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.”

“Did he talk a lot about locking me in dungeons?”

“It was only talk.” She is uneasy. “I thought you might take me to see the king. I know he’s always courteous to women, and kind.”

He shakes his head. If he takes Alice to the king she will talk about when he used to come to Chelsea and walk in the gardens. She will upset him: agitate his mind, make him think about More, which at present he doesn’t.

“He is very busy with the French envoys. He means to keep a large court this season. You will have to trust my judgment.”

The lesson? Dialogue can indeed provide exposition for the story, but don’t overdo it.

I’d love to hear your examples of good dialogue that provides exposition.

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I got back from a wonderful writers retreat about a week ago, one at which I had to make a couple of presentations. Since one of them was about writing believable dialogue, I thought I’d repeat much of what I shared here on my blog…only in parts.

To begin with, most of what I’m about to write here was gleaned from two excellent writers–Gail Tsukiyama (Women of the Silk) and Karen Joy Fowler (Sister Noon, The Jane Austen Book Club)–at a writers retreat I attended in Maui some six years ago. At least the main principles are theirs. I scrambled around among the books I’ve read to provide several examples of those principles.

According to Gail, there are six functions of dialogue in fiction: characterization, exposition, setting the scene, advancing the action, foreshadowing/reminding, and suggesting personality (which kind of goes hand in hand with characterization).

In talking about characterization, I quoted author Rita Mae Brown (“Rubyfruit Jungle”) from her book on writing (“Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual”):

“People are funny. No doubt you’ve noticed that others are not nearly as reasonable as yourself. Shocking, isn’t it? This difference between you and other people comes out in speech. Obviously, difference displays itself in the subject matter people speak about, but on a deeper, more subtle level, it displays itself in the way in which they frame those very ideas.”

She went on to then give an example of quick, efficient dialogue that characterizes. She set up the scene by asking the reader to imagine two teenage boys running around, creating havoc and the response of an 80-year-old widowed great-aunt: “Please desist from your tawdry ravings.”

What do those six words tell you about the woman? You learn, or can infer, that she commands the English language, understands precision and authority, and she’s well educated, possibly even upper class. If she’d just said, “Shut up” or “Be quiet” you wouldn’t have learned nearly enough.

I’d love to hear any examples of great characterization in dialogue that you’ve come across.

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