Saturday, May 7, 2016

MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE


THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
May 7, 2016



Howdy, fellow writers and readers of stories of all sorts: short stories, novels, epic sagas, limericks, risque jokes, movies, plays, folk songs—indeed, stories in any form, so long as they make a point, entertain, and show the magic of language.

This week, I have some things to say about dialogue. Dialogue is a near-necessity for good storytelling. Dialogue is a great tool for character development. How a person says something shows us a lot about what sort of person he or she is. Dialogue is also an illustration of the relationship between two (or more) people. And dialogue almost always enhances the plot of a story, because by the time the characters stop talking, something will almost invariably have changed during the conversation.

From what characters say, and how they say it, the reader will usually learn about these people: what they want, how they feel, whether they’re intelligent or dumb, good or bad, glass-half-empty or glass-half-full.

So use dialogue. Lots of dialogue. And give separate voices to your characters. Show, don’t tell. (How often must we hear that rule? A lot, lest we forget.) And make your dialogue real, not phony. If you can’t hear your characters when they’re having their say, read your story out loud. Do the voices sound like people talking? Just in case you’ve never noticed, people don’t always speak in full sentences. People use contractions more often than not. Grammar isn’t as important as emotion.

Then there’s the matter of the dialogue tags. The “he said,” the “she asked.” Elmore Leonard and Raymond Carver showed us that tags aren’t always necessary, so don’t overuse them if you don’t need them.

I have some pet peeves when it comes to dialogue tags. Now for a bit of show, don’t tell, I’ll finish this essay with a story:

§§§

“YOU’RE IT!” HE SAID TOUCHINGLY
Uses and Abuses of Dialogue Tags

The Butler’s Revenge

He hopped into the kitchen—obese, leathery, smelling like scum.
And he’s like, “Take me to the Princess!”
I shook my head, “Sorry. This ball is formal.”
“But she promised I could sleep with her!” he croaked, angrily.
“Welcome to the club,” I sympathized. That little bitch.
I picked him up and put him on a silver tray.
Said I, schemingly, “I’ll present you.”


The above story, a very short scene based on an old, archetypical fairy tale, needs work in the area of dialogue tags. Let’s do the work together.

Line 2 has what I consider an abomination, a speech pattern perpetrated on the English language by the young. Young people have been polluting our language ever since I became an intolerant old fart. Substituting “he goes” for “he said,” or “she’s all” for “she said,” or “I’m like” for “I said.” They make my eardrums ache. Okay, okay, it happens and I should just get over it. But consider the context here. This is no bus boy or scullery maid speaking here. The narrator is the butler. The butler would not say, “And he’s like…”

For that matter, there’s really no need for a dialogue tag in this line. The line of dialogue might work a lot stronger without a tag.

Line 3 has a silent tag. The shaking of a head does not make a sound, unless perhaps you’re wearing a hat with bells on it. Other often used (misused) silent tags are: grinned, glowered, etc. The easiest way to fix this is to use a period instead of a comma: “I shook my head. ‘Sorry…’”

On the other hand, the tag’s unnecessary anyway. We know who’s talking, and the word “Sorry” is all it takes to indicate refusal.

Line 4. We have an animal noise in a dialogue tag. Wait a minute. This animal tag, “he croaked,” is used correctly, because it’s a croaking animal (a frog) doing the talking. Okay, so that line’s okay. But in general, be careful of animal tags. They tend to be cartoon writing: “He snarled,” “she purred,” “She hissed,” “she chirped,” “she roared,” “he bellowed.” Use these sparingly, if at all.

Line 5 has a highfalutin substitution for the word “said.” The longer, unnecessary word “sympathized” isn’t really offensive, but it errs on the polysyllabic side. Other highfalutin substitutions for “said” include “She opined,” “he articulated,” and “I improvised.”

Besides, “sympathized” is unnecessary. “Welcome to the club” says it all.

Line 7 contains the dreaded LY adverb modifying the word “said.” “Schemingly,” which my spellchecker doesn’t even recognize, is unnecessary and therefore offensive. “‘I hate you!’ she shouted angrily” is an obvious example. These LY adverbs are noxious weeds. Get rid of them. If you think need to modify “said” with an adverb, then your line of dialogue needs to be written stronger.

And while I’m on Line 7, let me point out that the double reverse order of words, “said I” instead of “I said,” and putting the tag before the line of dialogue makes this line sound artificial and coy. Not that you can’t get away with reversing word order sometimes, but be careful and make sure you aren’t just being cute.

Now I’ll rewrite the story using the lessons we just went through. I think it will work a lot better. You be the judge:

The Butler’s Revenge

He hopped into the kitchen—obese, leathery, smelling like scum.
“Take me to the Princess!”
“Sorry,” I said. “This ball is formal.”
“But she promised I could sleep with her!” he croaked.
"Welcome to the club." That little bitch.
I picked him up and put him on a silver tray.
“I’ll present you,” I said.


§§§

Calling all published authors—
I feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at jmd@danielpublishing.com.

§§§

Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories

The deadline for June’s 99-word story submissions is June first. The stories will appear on my blog post for June 11 and remain there for one week.

note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.

Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: jmd@danielpublishing.com

THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story containing or inspired by this sentence: “I came home to a place I’d never been before.”


§§§

And now a word from our sponsor:
Recently published by Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, Inc.








THE THIRD SWIMMER
a novel by Rosalind Brackenbury
ISBN 978-1-56474-582-8
Trade Paperback $14.95






Order from your local independent bookstore, from an online bookseller, or direct from the publisher: 1-800-662-8351 


WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH, AND A MARRIAGE IN NEED OF REPAIR

Reminiscent of Camus’s The Fall, The Third Swimmer makes us ask who are we to one another.  And in the end does being human mean that we are capable of love?
--Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace

Rosalind Brackenbury’s new novel, The Third Swimmer, begins in 1939, in London. England is on the brink of war with Germany, and the future is uncertain for everyone. Thomas, a young architect, meets an office worker named Olivia and falls quickly in love.  She is having an affair with a married man, but decides to marry Thomas in order to have a future, and children.

In the second part, twelve years later, Olivia and Thomas are struggling in the aftermath of war, to raise children and make a life together. The marriage is unfulfilling for both of them, and Thomas feels survivor’s guilt for having escaped the dangers of war. As a belated honeymoon, the couple sets off into war-scarred France.  In Cassis on the south coast, they still have trouble talking to each other, until an emergency compels Thomas to risk his life to save a drowning woman. The couple’s future will depend on the outcome of this impetuous act of bravery.

Rosalind Brackenbury is the author of many novels and collections of poetry. In, 2015 she was made Poet Laureate of Key West, which she feels to be a particular honor in the city of Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, and James Merrill.  She has worked as a teacher, a book reviewer, a deck hand, a mother and a college professor. She lives in Key West, Florida, with her American husband. She spends part of each year in France.

The Third Swimmer took the author more than fifteen years—off and on between many other projects—to write. It is perhaps Brackenbury’s most personal book, because, although the novel is fiction, it is based on an event that happened to her own parents in Cassis, in 1952. As she writes in her Afterword to the novel, I didn’t know about this event until after my father died. Then I found the newspaper at the bottom of a desk drawer. Forty years, a story lying in a drawer. As soon as someone dies, you begin opening drawers, allowing yourself this transgression. And there they lie, emptied out, visible at last, the artifacts, the signs of life.” In the years since her discovery of her parents’ adventure in the south of France in 1952, the story has haunted her. Now it has finally taken shape as her latest novel.

§§§

Wow. This was a long post. I apologize for spouting off at such length. I must have felt strongly about dialogue. As a matter of fact, yes. Join me next week, and you’ll get to read some good 99-word stories. Till then, enjoy stories wherever you find them!





25 comments:

  1. As always, good advice, John. The late great Elmore Leonard was a master of dialogue. Writers should study him.His 'rules' on writing are often taken as absolute, though he, himself, often broke them. But his dialogue is always spot on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, John. Yes, Elmore Leonard was tops, and though he's gone to his reward, he left dozens of books to read and enjoy!

      Delete
  2. You are a learned man, John. In your illustration, I would have caught only about half of the writing errors. It just shows that even as old as dirt, I can still learn something about writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Elaine. I'm still learning too (and I'm older than ancient dirt myself). I think the more we write, the more we learn about writing.

      Delete
  3. Yikes; that was an education! I remember a time - maybe the 60's or 70's- when the word "croak" in various forms was used frequently. I can't imagine what was said to evoke the response "I almost croaked," but I was just a kid back then!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On the dark side, the word "croaked" also means "kicked the bucket." "I almost croaked" can be a cry of dismay or a whew of relief--or both!

      Delete
  4. Love the way you illustrated your points! One of my pet peeves is when writers try to make characters sound so authentic that the dialogue is hard to read and understand. And, while I don't balk from using incomplete sentences, some writers seem to use it as shorthand. Yes, that's how we talk, but on the page it just looks lazy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Love the way you illustrated your points! One of my pet peeves is when writers try to make characters sound so authentic that the dialogue is hard to read and understand. And, while I don't balk from using incomplete sentences, some writers seem to use it as shorthand. Yes, that's how we talk, but on the page it just looks lazy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sunny, I agree with you that clarity is important. Vital, in fact. Having a good ear for dialogue will keep the meaning clear, even while it, like human speech, disobeys grammatical rules.

      Delete
  6. Really interesting post. I went to an author event at a library branch here in Nashville, TN this morning and they were talking about this same thing. They didn't mention Carver, but Leonard Elmore's name came up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Elmore Leonard once said that 75% of what he knew about dialogue he learned by reading the books of Richard Bissell. Bissell is my favorite American writer. He died in the 1970s, but his dialogue still rings true.

      Delete
  7. Excellent post, and yes, dialogue really does define a character. I just finished a book, which needs editing, and you can bet I'll be paying closer attention to the tags. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. THanks, Marja. good luck with that new book!

      Delete
  8. Wonderful and concise message on dialogue, John. So much is revealed in our stories, fiction or non, through our characters' speech and conversations. I'm a great Elmore Leonard and Raymond Carver fan; you are too, I can tell. Thanks for posting this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Eileen. Yes, I am a fan of those writers. It doesn't surprise me that you are, too.

      Delete
  9. I think it was Stephen King who said "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Every time "ly" escapes my pencil or my keyboard, I cringe and try to reword the sentence. I'm wondering how you feel about dialect/spelling in dialogue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like dialect and phonetic spelling, but only if it's done in moderation. When it's laid on thick, it's cartoon writing and it loses credibility.

      Delete
  10. Writers who practice journalism before moving into narrative nonfiction or fiction often develop a good ear for dialogue. Add Carl Hiaasen to the list of writers with a great ear for dialogue. Reporters often select quotes to propel the story and to reveal the character of those they interview. And then there’s the matter of tags, usually limited to “said” and “questions” and the very basics. Adverbs are an ugly addition in every kind of writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John, thank you for mentioning Carl Hiaasen, who is indeed a master of dialogue. He's also one of the funniest writers in the business, and he's an impassioned environmentalist.

      Delete
  11. I agree about Carl Hiaasen. I'm trying to get away from inner dialog (ruminating)by having my characters talk to each other.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maggie, having characters talk to each other is one way to find out what's happening to their relationship. And that's what stories are mainly about.

      Delete
  12. Well, all my learned links I have learned much. Need I say what I must do...work on the art of dialog
    Thank you John for this post. I love reading the other comments

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm looking forward to picking up Rosalind Brackenbury, The Third Swimmer. The intro is compelling

    ReplyDelete