Monday, October 4, 2010

WORDSMITHING 101 ~ Part Three: Dialogue

Today's entry in WORDSMIGHING 101 is, Dialogue  Their Mechanics.
I thought I would set things up with something from deep within my own book, Vampire Ascending:

“I spoke to Nicolas,” Tremayne informed, coming out of his distracted expression.

“Yes?” I reached for the water glass, took a couple of sips from it, wishing it was a glass of wine.

“They finished questioning the woman. Her name was Solange, just as you'd said. She's from L.A., and, as you so brilliantly detected with your powers, is a shiftchanger. She changed into a cat to gain entrance into the garage.”

I nodded. Swallowing, I replaced my glass on the table. “What about the bag?”

“Leif and Darla have gone down to find it.” He went on swiftly, “She wasn't aiming for Heath, by the way. She was aiming for you.”

Shocked, I stared at him open-mouthed. “What? Me?”

Tremayne drummed the fingers of his free hand on the armrest. “Yes. My educated guess is that our killer knows about you, and wants you out of the way. You are the only one who can identify him, with your clairvoyant powers.” He shifted in his chair, staring intently at me. “I've been informed she was bitten. My guess is a rogue vampire is behind this.” His gaze went off me, looking pensive.

“But I thought we agreed that the killer was human.”

“The one who shot Letitia, yes. But the master-mind behind this must be a vampire. A human can't be hypnotized to the point of killing another person, unless they were already a killer, so she was enthralled by a vampire. We've identified our little shiftchanger as Solange LaPrima. She's from L.A., and that's all we got from her.”

“But you're saying a vampire bit her and sent her here?”

“Yes, sent her here to find and shoot you.” He squeezed his eyes. “I don't like that they knew where to wait for you. Or what you liked like.”
Me either. Where was that wine?strong>
©2010 Lorelei Bell

If you will note the dialogue moves along well, and we learn about something that concerns both speakers. You will also note that between the dialogue the two are doing something. These are called beats. The places where you identify who is speaking (he said/she said) are called speaker attributes. Also there is one instance of what is called interior monologue, at the end of this section.

Before I even go on, I have to make an admission. Not long ago I actually didn't know the mechanics of dialogue at all. I was doing it all wrong. Funny, people who read my material, never made note of it. Let me show you an example of what I was doing, and see if you catch it.

“I spoke to Nicolas.” Tremayne informed. . . .

It is quite subtle. But if you look closely at the punctuation, you'll see it. I'll make it easier:

“I spoke to Nicolas.” He said.

Now do you see it? There needs to be a comma after Nicolas, and before the quotation marks. Plus, He said, shouldn't be capitalized. I made this mistake, thinking I was doing it right.

How embarrassing! I was sending my books out with dialogue like this. The most aggravating thing about it is, I had written a novel and sent it off to a romance publisher, now more than a dozen years ago, and they were slightly interested, but said that there was a problem with the dialogue. Well, they didn't tell me what exactly. I didn't know what they'd meant. Had I known my mistake, maybe, just maybe, I would have had a first novel published back then.

I sort of stumbled upon my error when I decided to pay more attention to how books were written. Remember in my last post in this series I said to write down whole sentences of writers you like and examine how they write? I mean really pick it apart from word usage, to how they set up the whole thing, and right down to the mechanics of it.

Dialogue in a work of fiction is there to help you build characters, create tension between them, to inform the reader of certain details, and move the story along. In the above example, my main character—Sabrina—is given information in doses. By not having Tremayne go on and on in a long paragraph (which can get boring), I feed it to her—and to my readers--in sections. To break it all up, they are doing something. People fidget, or make some facial expressions, or move. Tremayne's shifting in his chair denotes that he is somewhat agitated by what is being discussed*. Even though he is a vampire. I don't like having a vampire not show some emotion, even in the minutest way. Instead of saying, he was nervous, I show you that he seems uncomfortable, or uneasy. At one point he “drummed the fingers of his free hand on the armrest”.

I do the same with Sabrina, who is drinking water, and wishes it was wine, instead. Having your characters doing something, is fine, but while something very important is being discussed, you don't want to put too much detail into what they're doing. That can make a reader loose interest, and take away the importance of what is being said. So, beats are alright, as long as you don't do it after every bit of dialogue. You want a balance.

Also you might note that no where in that above scene do I have a “he said/she said”. Why? I'm not really sure why this one example I chose didn't. But you will also note in some places I have no speaker attributes at all. You don't need to tell the reader who is speaking every time if there are only two people in the room. After the first few times this should be enough. But you also need to put some beats in, just to break up a string of dialogue. Unless you're trying to go for intensity in what is being said, of course. One writer I can think of who is very good at dialogue is Dean Koontz. He's an excellent writer, and I think anyone who picks up any of his books will see the man has the English language down so well, he could teach it. He's entertaining as well as well-learned, as he researches everything he writes about, and has written about a vast number of things in his writings. He is what is called a suspense/thriller writer.

One thing to remember as a writer, your characters are not in a blank room with nothing in it. There are plenty of “props” one can use to help make the characters in your novel feel real. You don't want to use too many, and in some cases, if you're cleaver, and can use it, the props can be somewhat suggestive toward what is going on, or what the other person might be thinking about instead of what is being said.

Let me take out the props in the text above and see how it sounds:
“I spoke to Nicolas,” Tremayne said.

“Yes?” I said.

“They finished questioning the woman. Her name was Solange, just as you'd said.

She's from L.A., and, as you so brilliantly detected with your powers, is a shiftchanger. She changed into a cat to gain entrance into the garage.”

“What about the bag?”

“Leif and Darla have gone down to find it,” he said. “She wasn't aiming for Heath, by the way. She was aiming for you.”

“What? Me?” I said, shocked.

“Yes. My educated guess is that our killer knows about you, and wants you out of the way. You are the only one who can identify him, with your clairvoyant powers. I've been informed she was bitten. My guess is a rogue vampire is behind this.” He looked pensive.

“But I thought we agreed that the killer was human,” I said indignantly.

“The one who shot Letitia, yes. But the master-mind behind this must be a vampire. A human can't be hypnotized to the point of killing another person, unless they were already a killer, so she was enthralled by a vampire. We've identified our little shiftchanger as Solange LaPrima. She's from L.A., and that's all we got from her.”

“But you're saying a vampire bit her and sent her here?”

“Yes, sent her here to find and shoot you,” he said, squeezing his eyes at me. “I don't like that they knew where to wait for you. Or what you liked like.”

Me either, I thought. Where was that wine?

In this version, I took out the props. Not as interesting, is it? It's sort of bland. Plus the speakers are just sort of floating. You don't know what they're doing—if they're seated or standing. I also added an -ly adverb in the speaker attributes and I also did the readers job in places where I shouldn't. Plus, if you will note at the end, where I have the interior monologue, I've placed the allocation: she thought, which is not needed. If we put in the italics, this speaks for itself. You, the writer, must not be visible. Saying “she/he thought” after the interior monologue, you've just talked down to your readers. If you've done it correctly, it should come across as the character's thoughts. That's all that is needed.

The she said/he said is fine in places you need them. If you are working to snag an agent, you don't want too many places where you've placed anything more. If it's a question the speaker is saying, then he/she asked is fine. Once in a while a little tweaking of speaker attributes helps, but never explain the emotion, unless this is your style. J.K. Rowling gets away with this continuously. But, we aren't J.K. Rowling or other fine best selling authors who add emotional tags such as:
stated flatly
informed quickly
said glumly, solemnly, casually, mildly, hastily, etc.


This isn't a hard and fast rule, and rules are meant to be broken, but don't have a string of these tags down a page. One per page is fine. Otherwise he said/she said works because as we read these attributes become invisible, the reader doesn't notice them and we can read on. By adding some beats, as I've shown, adds a quality, a depth to the characters themselves, shows their emotions without the writer having to say he/she was nervous. (Showing and telling will be another subject of a future post in this series)

One side note: I enjoy having my characters sit down to a meal, and figure out how they are going to say things while eating. It's a challenge, and it's fun. Plus, I don't like to starve my characters. My human ones, or my vampires, and so on. I hate reading a novel where the main character never eats—or is shown eating, or even mentions food, or having had anything to eat prior. If the task of placing people at the table and eating and talking is a bit difficult to manage, merely give them the props. Snagging a bit of food with a fork, cutting into a steak or some meat, a character shoving a bit of food to the side of their mouths, or slipping a fork between their lips, is enough to suggest that they're eating. Also, the little basics of life, such as jumping into the shower, or, in my case, my female characters love bubble baths. But we don't need to go through the whole moment by moment of them washing—unless this is a sex scene and we need to get into these details. Any of these scenes are up to the author, and how to work them in, if the scene calls for it, of course.

Another trick in dialogue to use, just to keep your readers interested, have your characters misunderstand one another, or not answer a direct question. This can show subtle tension between two people. They can also quickly change the subject. But if they do this, please don't say “She changed the subject”. Instead, the other character will note that the other person has changed the subject. I blew a strand of hair from my eyes. She always does this, never answers me . . . This is better than just stating it. We writers have to do our job, and we must allow the reader to do theirs.

Another note: We don't want our dialogue to sound exactly like the way people talk. We are trying to mimic real speech. We may tend to write dialogue and it seems stiff. Read it out loud to someone and see if they hear it, if you can't. Or, if you have a way to record it as you read it, then you might hear when you play it back how it sounds.

Don't forget using contractions, like don't, wouldn't, hasn't in the dialogue. People do not speak stiffly. In stead of them saying

“I do not know.” you want “I don't know.” Unless you are trying to get across that the person is more eloquent of speech, of course.

Interior Monologue, is a bit harder. The whole idea is we are getting into the character's head. I'd rather touch on this in another entry, since the mechanics of this can throw a lot of people. I know it did me for a long time. Signaling the interior monologue can be done with italics or without. I'd rather go into this in another series, rather than devote too much of it here.

The last thing I want to address is when dialogue is used, and you have one or more people speaking, when a new person speaks, you want a new paragraph all to that person, and what they're saying.

Also remember that ellipsis . . . are for gaps in speech. Dashes – are for interruptions.

*for information on body language here is a handy site for you:
http://www.businessballs.com/body-language.htm

Also recommended: Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

4 comments:

  1. All good points about dialogue. I know I have a lot of editing still to do, but this will help when I am looking at my dialogue.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good. I hope it helps many who stop by.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent, informative post. Dialogue is one of my favorite subjects.

    ReplyDelete

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