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Monday, October 1, 2012

Walk (well, write) the Talk

            He said, she said, they said, we said. Everybody's talking. The way we impart information to each other is through our voices and our body language, and the best characters are the ones we can see and hear clearly in our heads. How a character speaks tells us a lot about them. What they say can tell us their approximate age and education level, indicate where they're from, and tells us what they find important. Some people are naturally brilliant at dialogue. Some writers will always struggle. I can't give you a magic talisman or a cure-all, but I can give you tips on how to make your dialogue stronger and point out mistakes to avoid.
            Mistake number one is repetition. Repetition isn’t just about words; it can also be sounds, word forms, sentence lengths, and letter combinations. Dialogue should be as brief as possible unless the character who’s talking is verbose. How a character speaks tells us a lot about how they’re feeling in this scene and how they feel about who they’re talking to, so don’t give characters the wrong feeling because you are over doing it with the clarity. For example:
            “Did you get the aspirin, babe? I really need it.”
“Yes, I got the aspirin.”
“And the burger buns. I hope you got those.”
“Yes, I got the burger buns.”
“Did you remember to stop by my mother’s house? She said she had something for us.”
“No, I didn’t remember to stop by your mother’s house. I didn’t remember that she said she had something for us.”
Having the second character repeat everything the first character said is annoying and unnecessary, unless you are trying to get across that she is annoyed with his questioning. Even then the last line is overdone. Keep it simple. Yes or no answers the question, we don’t need the recap. Repetition slows down the story and loses the reader’s interest at best, and at worst annoys them enough that they give you a bad review.
Mistake number two is overusing names in conversations. I edited an otherwise strong manuscript once where the two main characters constantly called each other by name during the dialogue. Since I hear the words in my head when I’m reading, it was jarring. We’ll call the two characters Evan and Sierra in this example:
“Evan, I’m scared. What do we do now?”
“I don’t know, Sierra. I guess we try to stick together and find a way out of here and just hope no one notices.”
“I’ve never been lost like this before Evan. I’m freaking out. Look, my hands are shaking.”
“Put your hands in your pockets to keep them warm, Sierra.”
“Evan, are we going to die?”
“No Sierra, I’ll get us out of here. We’ll find a way.”
Think that sounds okay? Read it out loud. Then read it again, and omit every name but the first two. Even those aren’t strictly necessary because Evan and Sierra are the only two people in the scene. There isn’t anyone else for them to talk to. Using people’s names repeatedly in conversation is awkward and makes the person you are speaking to uncomfortable. Try it, just for fun. Next time you’re on the phone or chatting with a friend say their name every time it’s your turn to speak. It’s funny. You can’t keep a straight face for long.
Third mistake is monologuing. Letting a character go on and on uninterrupted gets boring and loses the flow of your story. Exceptions can be when a character is telling a story, but even then the punctuation can get unwieldy and the story you’re telling is disrupted.  Stories succeed because they’re a mixture of elements- action, dialogue, exposition, conflict, more action, etc. Letting just one element take over unbalances your manuscript. And readers notice. They get frustrated, or bored.
Consider the nature of a story, with its conflicts and adversarial confrontations. Unchallenged dialogue drains conflict. Sometimes you have a lot of information to impart. Sometimes your villain is monologuing about their secret plot. There are many ways to get out exposition and dialogue isn’t the only one. In my book, “The Darkest Lie,” I had a lot of background to explain about why magic exists in our world and what caused that to happen initially. Apparently I decided to make this exposition as difficult as possible, since I placed it while to characters were in a car and traveling. No action is possible because the characters are in a static place. But I could use the needed exposition to tell the background and give more about the characters. Here is the excerpt from my manuscript:
 "It's the same thing," Brennan said, trying to regain his composure. "Science and magic, at their core, just mean something you can explain with physical laws and something you can't. Science here is magic to the Shae, because they don't understand it or why it works, whereas their magic to them is mundane but to us is inexplicable." Thane yawned. "Now I'm boring you?"
         "No, just didn't get much sleep," Thane said, yawning again. "So where does Sanctum come into this?"
         "That's where the magic comes in," Brennan said, modulating his voice to sound deeper and more mysterious. Thane rolled his eyes. "In a universe beyond our stars in a time we don't understand, a group of thaumaturgists set out to control the Song. They-"
            "A group of what?" Thane interrupted.
            "Thaumaturgists. Magicians. This group had studied the singing of space and time for longer than we can know, and found a loophole. They set out to create a golem that could pass through the weaves-"
            "They built what?"
            Brennan pressed his lips together. "A golem. A construct. An imitation person made from other elements like clay or rock or fire or whatever you can manipulate that can move around and follow your directions."
            "Like a robot," Thane suggested.
            "Sure, like an advanced robot. They built one that could change the tension in every string that composed her, thereby changing her resonant frequency. She could phase through the Weave. She also had the ability to access the Song, and increase the tension of those around her until their strings would snap, and they would die. The power of their songs would flow through her to her masters. She had no thought or free will; she was a tool, nothing more. They called her The Sylph and she did their bidding until no life was left in their world but each other."
            Thane's eyelids were heavy, and he yawned again, blinking. "That's stupid. What was the point?"
            "Power. With every life she took their power grew. So as the evil often do, those who created The Sylph turned on each other. They each pulled The Sylph with opposing wills and directives, and for the first time many thoughts were in her head. The combination of the billions of lives that had passed through her and the conflicting desires filling her combined to wake her up and she became self aware."
            "Sentient," Thane said, thinking of Remy. He leaned back, resting his head against the top of the seat.
            "Sentient," Brennan agreed. "And she understood the anger, fear, and pain she had experienced with every soul drawn through her, and that drove her mad. The Sylph killed every one of her former masters and then looked to the stars, and on her first day of life she was the last living thing on her world. She wept strange tears of Song, and where they fell the Weave tore open. The Sylph peered into the darkness and outside the one note of her world she could hear the harmonies of the multiverse. And so she left, being careful to travel with the sound and never cross it, moving between the universes in small spaces between the singers of the Song. The Sylph-"
            "How?" Thane asked, lifting his head up.
            Brennan was irritated. "How what?"
            "How did she move between the universes? How could there be space between the sound?"
            Brennan was dumbfounded. "I don't know if anyone's ever thought to ask that," he admitted.
            "Well, how do you know the story?"
            "From Sanctum. It's part of the advanced reading material."
            "How do they know?" Thane pressed.
            "She told them. During the Guardian Wars when our two worlds were colliding and everything was snapping and shattering from the dissonance and no one knew how to fix it or what was happening. The Sylph showed up in the middle of the battle and stopped it cold, and told everyone the story so they would know it was her fault." Brennan scratched his chin, considering. "She still shows up sometimes, or so I'm told. I've personally never met Sylphie."
            "Yeah, apparently she thought being called The Sylph was insulting because it sounded like a thing instead of a person, so she changed it after they established the Guardians."
            "What are the Guardians?"
            Brennan placed his palm on Thane's forehead. "You, my young friend, have an intelligent and agile mind. Now shut up." He pushed Thane's head back down against the seat. "I will get to the Guardians and the Wars and the Shae and Sanctum but only if you let me talk without interrupting me." Fighting to stay awake, Thane yawned widely enough that his jaw popped. "Or you can go to sleep, kid, I'll tell you the rest later."
          "No, keep going," Thane tried to sound alert.
         "Whatever you say. So the Sylph traveled in the space between the universes and listened to the song. She filled the emptiness of her soul with the song shared by the living of every world. Until in one distant universe the wrong star exploded." Thane's head lolled forward, and he jerked it up. Brennan looked at him, seeming to expect an interruption, but Thane just waited. "The explosion blew a hole in the Weave of that universe and it started to fail, the vibrations slowing and its Song dying. But the dying Song was going to pass too close to our universe and the Sylph knew we would be destroyed too."
            "What? How?" Thane's words were slurred, but he fought to stay awake.
            "The sound waves would cancel each other out. So the Sylph made a choice and moved us." Brennan held up a hand to forestall any questions. "I'm not sure exactly how. As I understand, she phased into our Weave and tightened it, changing the frequency of vibration. Not much, but enough that the other universe died without taking us with it. The problem that arose was now we were too close to the Shaerealm. We wouldn't collide because we were moving the same direction at about the same speed. It's more like we were tangled together, their Weave and ours, and in one place particularly the Weaves tangled so much the two worlds opened to each other."
            Thane couldn't raise his eyelids, and the inside of his head felt sloshy. His body slumped, shoulders rolling back, and his head slid to rest wedged between the door and the back of his seat. He wasn't completely asleep, but was far enough that he couldn't open his eyes or move his head. In this semi-conscious state, Thane heard a rap rap rap and then a whirring sound, like an electric window going down.
           "He's asleep," Brennan's voice floated through his remaining consciousness.
           "Finally." LaPointe sounded annoyed. Thane could feel the car slowing and pulling off the road. "I apologize for saying the dose was too high. He should've been out within seconds of drinking all that."
          "I told you, the kid is tough," Brennan said, and the car came to a stop.
           A third voice spoke up. "What is the ending of the story?" the accent the man had reminded Thane of villains in old movies. He heard Brennan snort, and the speaker defended, "You have to finish the story, or it is like hanging up without saying goodbye. It is rude."
          Brennan sighed, then spoke in a rush. "So The Sylph became Sylphie and we used science and magic to establish the guardian stones that balance the resonant realities of our worlds. We didn't have the power to close the tears, so Sanctum was established to coordinate the integration of the inhabitants of the two worlds, and establish and enforce ground rules, and generally to oversee the stabilization of both universes so that they could coexist. Happy now?"

            That was a large excerpt, but I wanted to use it to establish two important things about dialogue. One, Brennan’s story about the origins of magic in our world was not one uninterrupted fairy tale. Thane’s interjections and fighting to stay awake provide the reader with a fuller view of what’s happening in my story without losing any of the back story behind it. Two, each character has a distinct speaking voice. Brennan likes to sound intelligent and uses long sentences. Thane is brief and direct. The lack of contractions from the third voice, always saying “it is” instead of “it’s” indicates a dialect. No, he’s not a robot. Remember he has an accent, which Thane learns later is Russian.
            Which brings us to dialogue difficulty / mistake number four. Writing a character with an accent. One of your characters having an accent is not a mistake, but it is hard. You have to keep the accent consistent without overusing punctuation and making it hard for your reader to read. One of the characters in my book has a cockney accent, and that was a pain to write. I’m going to rework it to make it better. Look at the following dialogue:
            "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."
            This dialogue is clumsy and inelegant, and the constant use of apostrophes distracts the eye from the word and can pull the reader out of the story. If you’re going to write a character with an accent, focus more on the patterns of speech and the words used than on pronunciation. Yoda is a great example of this. He spoke perfectly clear English, but the structures of his sentences made his accent unforgettable. If Yoda you now quote, get it everyone around you will. And no visually distracting apostrophes or strangely spelled words.
            I’m going to halt this blog post now, and do a second one on dialogue later. There’s still a lot to go over, including 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. That will be next time.
            “The end,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows. “For now.”

1 comment:

  1. I don't consider myself naturally good at dialogue. BUT, in my book, I have a man who is a constant story teller. I use him to tell stories about the past to explain background, stories that convey the culture, and stories that give hints toward the future. Some of them are long stories. I break them up, though, by adding questions from other people, or descriptions of the looks on people's faces at intervals through the story he is telling.