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Monday, October 22, 2012

Dialogue Part Two!

"Hello internet! Long time, no see," I said, blinking bleary eyes. Too much worry, not enough sleep.

The infinity of the cloud glows back at me from the monitor, the cursor blinking in the Google search text box. There is a finite, though impressively large, number of sites on the web but an infinite number of clicks and links that tangle us more tightly. It does not care that the medicine I take at night to force me past REM sleep makes me feel drunk, nor that if I don't sleep well with the medicine I wake up feeling hung over. I have friends who are experts in both states and we've compared notes. I'm glad the internet doesn't answer me, because it means I've held onto my sanity for another day.

Not that I'm in any real danger of losing it, I've just heard that people who are crazy never question their sanity, so I make a point of questioning mine. It makes me feel better. Plus I said I'd post again on October 15th, and here it is, October 22nd, and I'm writing my first post in over two weeks. Oddly, not writing in all that time has made me feel more disconnected from myself than any amount of missed sleep. It was worth it, though. Having so many good friends (including my mom, who is also a good friend) come and visit for my birthday was incredible. It was better than incredible. It was peaceful, and happy.

And then one airport trip at a time, they left, and now I'm back to real life and laying awake last night realizing that there's a character in my book whose every line of dialogue needs to change. Yep, every line. Because I struggled every time he entered the scene writing in a voice that was not his, but my idea of what his should be. And that is a writer's struggle when a character will not conform to what you think they should be but continues to fight against you in your own subconscious to be what you really know it ought to be. Which is why this post now changes from "My stream-of-consciousness ramble about how I am and how I'm feeling," into "Dialogue part two!"

We last left our discussion on dialogue with the promise that I was going to talk to you about letting your characters speak for themselves, the best dialogue tags in the universe, how to know what to cut and what to keep, how to spice up the conversation, and how to know when it’s good. I was fighting against letting my character speak for himself because of how he was first presented to me. I didn't let him evolve into a character that would be better for my book, and one who I would write more fluidly. This character is Charlie. I talked about him last time, with the accent and the excerpt. Remember all the distracting apostrophes? Every time he came on stage I fought to make his accent Cockney, the dialect of the lowest caste of the British. And it's awkward. Let's look at it again.

"That's bollocks, I'm out," Charlie stated flatly. "You can't put that kind of pressure on me or on 'im. Giving me six bleedin' days to teach something it takes an 'atchling a decade to get right and then bootin' 'im back into the world with just a prayer you won't need to call the cleaners to fix the mess? No. I won't be on the line for that. You've got enough on me already, and I'm not 'elping you cut the kids arm so it's bleedin' when you throw 'im back in the shark tank." Charlie crossed his arms and stared, unblinking, into Gage's eyes. "Get one of your Omega monkeys to do it. I won't."

Now I did a lot of research into the Cockney dialect and specific words. There are several things in here and all through this character's dialogue that are correct phrases for the dialogue that don't make a lot of sense to non-Cockney speakers. That's the first rule of accent writing- do your research. But even with all my study and near psychotic insistence on correctness, it just didn't fit the character. In my head, he's Scottish. Partly because he's supposed to be a womanzier and to my ear the Scottish dialect is more attractive than the Cockney, and partly because he's supposed to be abrasive and impulsive and the only thing more abrasive than Cockney to a highly educated British ear is highland Scot. But because I knew the concept of the character first as a Cockney, I tried to stay true to that. 

This is a time when strict adherence to the outline made the story harder to write. I was trying to write, but the Charlie in my head was speaking in a Scottish accent, so I'd translate from the Scottish to English to Cockney. Don't make things harder for yourself by doing that. Let's see if the dialogue flows better without all the translating.

"Yer daft. I'll not be responsible for that," Charlie stated flatly. "You cannae put that kind of pressure on me nor on the lad, tae be learning sommat that takes a hatchling a good score to get right and giving us six peerie days. Then what? Yer'll boot him out inta the world with just a prayer there'll be no need tae call the cleaners? I'll not be hooked for that. Yer Sanctum jackanapes have enough on me without me seeing the lad down the road just enough to cut him open an toss him to the sharks." Charlie crossed his arms and stared, unblinking, into Gage's eyes. "Get one o' your Omega monkeys to do it. I won't."

What do you think? There's one apostrophe in place of a letter instead of many, but the dialect is still clear. Which way do you like better? (And for those of you who are very familiar with the Charlie character, think of this as a way to protect his anonymity from generations of jealous husbands). I'm going to have to slog through all the dialogue again to change the dialect to what it was supposed to be in the first place. Learn from my mistake, and allow your characters their own voices from the beginning. 

But how do you know when it's good? After you've been lost in the world of your story for hours, writing down everything as it appears in your brain, how do you know when the dialogue rings true? It's easier than you think. All you need is people. Real live people. First read it out loud by yourself. You'll find that you say the line differently out loud than you wrote it down. Modify it as needed. Then do it again. After a while, you'll move on in the story or you'll decide you need more testing.

If you need to test out your dialogue, what better way than in the mouths of people to speak it? Copy and paste the section of dialogue into a new document. Then either re-write it like a script, or only ask people to help who you can trust to keep their opinions to themselves. Read it out loud with them. Don't tell them anything about the characters, because the more they know the more they'll try to make the dialogue conform. You don't want that. You want to hear it as written, to see if the lines stand for the characters on their own. If it's written well, the words will flow naturally. If it's written really well, the readers will slip into the character without any prompting from you. Just make sure they know to read only the dialogue, and not the tags. That can confuse actors/readers, especially since dialogue tags usually come after the words and if you have those dreaded "ly" words then they might want to read it again to follow your direction, and that will mess up the flow. 

The very best dialogue tags in the world are "said," "asked," and " ". You don't want your writing to detract or distract from your characters and your story. Words like "blandly" "angrily" and "zestfully" are not nearly as useful as you might believe. We've talked about this before in the show don't tell section of another post, but it bears repeating: don't get in your own way. If your character is tired he or she does things tiredly, sure, but that is a word describing other words, not painting an image. Your character doesn't say things tiredly, she says them. Sleep, or the lack thereof, slurs her words together. Her hands fumble with the keys and her eyes droop while she tries to restrain a yawn. Your character doesn't shout angrily, he shouts and bangs his fist on the table, or says through clenched teeth with narrow eyes. It's even better if you don't need dialogue tags at all, but you can tell who the speaker is by what they're saying and how they say it. Go through your most recent piece of writing and search for your dialogue tags. Copy and paste a section of dialogue into a new document and get rid of every tag, then read it. Can you still tell who is saying which line? If not, go back and clarify your characters in your own mind. If so, get someone else to read it. Give them highlighters in different colors and assign each color to a specific character. Then have them highlight who says what. You may be surprised with what they think.

We still have to cover what to cut and what to keep and how to spice it up, but we'll get to that next time. I must cut myself free from the internet for now. But it feels good to be writing again, and it feels good to get myself back a bit more with each word.

Tune in next time for another exciting installment of A Writer By Day, same bat time, same bat channel!

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