Friday, May 19, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Plum Great Dialogue

Welcome back to Ask Mr. Writing Person, where the weather is a puppet and the characters are vexed! Joining us today is Bruce Boondocks, from Bitter End, Tennessee. He's a long-time fan of mine [Ed: two days, is it?], and just as excited as can be to participate. Isn't that right, Bruce?

Q. Oh, yeah. I'm so plum excited, I'm gonna wet myself.

A. Please don't. What's your question?

Q. Every time I write some dialogue, it just don't sound right. It's all real emotional stuff, but it sounds flat. How do I put actual, honest-to-goodness emotion into it?

A. Give us an example from your work-in-progress.

Q. Okay, I got Bill and Jack, and they're arguing:

"I told you to keep your filthy hands off my fondue pot!"

"I wouldn't touch your stupid fondue pot if you'd keep it out of my luggage!"

Suddenly, the door swung open. "Hey guys! I just came from the housing office, and I got all three of us in this exact room next year, too!"

"Shut up, Nord!"

A. One problem, Mr. Bluecocks, is that your dialogue doesn't have any tags.

Q. Yeah, well, I was trying to establish a sense of mystery, you know--who's talking?

A. Part of emerging from the dark, cozy little hell of illiterate Philistinehood is learning how much mystery to use. The amount you've got doesn't work here. So sock it to us again, but this time, put in a few basic "he saids."

Q. You're the boss.

"I told you to keep your filthy hands off my fondue pot!" said Bill.

"I wouldn't touch your stupid fondue pot if you'd keep it out of my luggage!" said Jack.

Suddenly, the door swung open. "Hey guys!" said Nord. "I just came from the housing office, and I got all three of us in this exact room next year, too!"

"Shut up, Nord!" said Jack.

A. Great. Don't worry, you can still put who's talking mystery back in. Have you got more than one name for each of these characters?

Q. Yeah. Everyone calls Bill Moose, Big Stud, and Pimp. I think they call Jack, uh, Stewie, Artsy-Fartsy, and Bender. And Nord gets called Beaver Boy, Bucky, and, um, The Great Banana Rider.

A. Come up with about ten more for each character. We won't do this today, but when you go back to your story, tag your dialogue, and randomly pick one of these names for each tag. Your readers will have to think extra hard about who says what, and that's the kind of little mystery that readers just adore. It has the added benefit that it makes your dialogue appear to be happening among more people than it is, adding what I like to call body to your story.

Q. Genius.

A. You've done well with your exclamation points--you can never have too many in highly-charged dialogue--but you missed a prime opportunity here:

Suddenly, the door swang open!!!

The extra exclamation points should serve as a clue to the reader that Nord has opened the door in a particularly dramatic way. I've also changed the "swing" verb to its subjugular normative form for emphasis.

Q. Wow... I'da never thunk that one up.

A. Of course you wouldn't. Now, we should add what's called voice to your characters. Notice how Bill and Jack talk the same way? People in real life don't, so let's change Jack's:

"Forsooth, thine fondue pot within my luggage hath vexed me to action!" saith Jack.

Q. Sweet.

A. That sort of dialect works best in contemporary fiction like yours. Next, you should memorize this bit of advice: avoid "said" like the plague. Do you know why?

Q. Can't say that I do.

A. Three reasons. First, people tire of reading the same word over and over again. Second, there are usually better, more descriptive words you can use instead. Third, like many other English words, it starts to sound foreign when you repeat it too many times. Try it.

Q. Okay. Said said said said said said said said said said said said said said said said said--yeah, that sounds right funny now. Said. Ha ha. Said said said...

A. Exactly. So we'll replace them--

Q. ... said said said said said said said said said said said said said said said...

A. --and you can kindly shut up. We'll crack open our eternally useful thesaurus to find replacements:

"I told you to keep your filthy hands off my fondue pot!" articulated Bill.

"Forsooth, thine fondue pot within my luggage hath vexed me to action!" forsoothed Jack.

Suddenly, the door swang open!!! "Hey guys!" verbalized Nord. "I just came from the housing office, and I got all three of us in this exact room next year, too!"

"Shut up, Nord!" commented Jack.

Q. Wow!

A. The new said-verbs are less repetitive and more descriptive. As a bonus, you prove to your readers that your working vocabulary is larger than theirs, which helps them respect you.

Q. Yeah, I need some respect.

A. I'm sure. Next, we need to control the pace a little. We can do that by inserting gestures and action into the appropriate places:

"I told you to keep your filthy hands off my fondue pot!" articulated Bill as he gestured at Jack.

"Forsooth," forsoothed Jack as he actioneth a bit, "thine fondue pot within my luggage hath vexed me to action!"

Suddenly, the door swang open!!! "Hey guys!" verbalized Nord, actioning and gesturing. "I just came from the housing office, and I got all three of us in this exact room next year, too!"

Jack actioned on Nord!!! He commented, "Shut up, Nord!"

Q. Yeah, that seems a lot realer. What are they doing when they, um, action? Is it bad?

A. It doesn't matter what they're doing, because they're only doing it to control the pace. Isn't that clever? Now, the dialogue is still a bit weak in one area.

Q. No way. I don't believe it.

A. Early in my writing years, before I emerged from my own dark, cozy hell, I stumbled across an ancient literary device, dating back to, say, the 17th century, for inserting a crackling, highly-charged atmosphere into any dialogue at all. Sadly, it is not commonly employed, and I know not the reason. However, I will teach it to you, young Philistine.

Q. Oh, man, I'm gonna wet myself...

A. Please don't. The technique is called... meteorological accentuation!

Q. Mastorectimal what? What's that mean?

A. It means you accentuate bits of dialogue by playing with the weather, my thick-headed disciple. Nowadays, authors accomplish the same thing, but with little flair, using adverbs. The best place to litter adverbs, however, is not dialogue, but everywhere else. Besides, this is clearly superior:

Outside, a cold, gray storm grew upon the horizon. "I told you to keep your filthy hands off my fondue pot!" articulated Bill as he gestured at Jack. Lightning struck!

"Forsooth," forsoothed Jack as he actioneth a bit, "thine fondue pot within my luggage hath vexed me to action!" Again, lightning speareth the ground! Rain beginneth to pelt the windows as a lunatick child who holdeth a sack of rocks.

Golden rays burst through the clouds. Suddenly, the door swang open!!! "Hey guys!" verbalized Nord, actioning and gesturing in the bright sunlight. "I just came from the housing office, and I got all three of us in this exact room next year, too!"

Jack actioned on Nord!!! He commented, "Shut up, Nord!" The clouds again engulfed the sun, bathing them all in gray, dismal tones. Thunder rolled in the distance.

Q. Wow! Wow!

A. Yes, it's really quite striking, isn't it? Ha ha.

Q. I know... I mean, you know... you know what this means? MY DUDES CAN CONTROL THE WEATHER WITH THEIR MINDS!

A. What? What's this you're blathering about?

Q. Check it out! Bill shouted, and lightning struck! And then Jack got all, uh, vexed, and it started to rain! They can control the weather with their minds!

A. I'm sorry, Bruce, but they can't.

Q. They can't?

A. No. It's just a literary device. And three moody, male roommates with the ability to mentally control the weather is a terrible premise for a book. I'd never, ever use it.

Q. Never?

A. Never. Ever. Anyway, you've been a good sport, if a bit dense. Keep up the good work and you'll be clawing your way out of your own private Hades in no time. Thanks for joining me on Ask Mr. Writing Person. Next time, take a leak before you come.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a novel to start.

1 Comments:

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Years later, I still read these when the whim takes me — and this one in particular stuck in my memory. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, I hope you're still writing somewhere.

PS: I now regularly vet MPs about Bell's inequalities.

 

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