Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Talking Dialogue

Dialogue is one of those things that gets newer writers in a knot. "I can't write dialogue," they say. I don't get it. If you have ears and you can eavesdrop, you can begin to work on your dialogue. Eavesdropping tells you a few things - how people really speak (repetition, half-sentences, ums and ers, more 'likes' than you can poke a stick at, cliches, rambling) for one. So you learn not to write dialogue like this (no, not even if you have a mentally deranged character - readers will only put up with so much stylistic rubbish like that - get on with the story!) But you can get some great story ideas from those half-heard, half-unspoken conversations. The writer in you just fills in the gaps.
Listening to daytime soaps will also teach you about dialogue - how to be boring and repetitious and explain everything three times. That's the job of dialogue in soaps. It's not what you do on the page, because a reader who fell asleep and missed a bit can just flick back a couple of pages and read them again.
Watching movies with lots of silence in them - that's often very useful. Why? Because usually when there is some dialogue, it's packed with meaning and subtext.
Dialogue has a lot of jobs to do. I think that's why people freak out about it. It has to show character, provide information, move the story along, show emotion (so you don't need all those adverbial tags) and create action/reaction. And more. One way of looking at it is to think, Wow, dialogue is such a great tool. I can use it for all that stuff and I can avoid the dastardly disaster commonly known as [telling].
Why am I thinking about dialogue this week? Because this novel I'm playing with seems to have an awful lot of dialogue in it, and the suspicious, editorly part of me is shaking its head and saying, You need to watch that - remember how you complained about Jonathan Kellerman's last novel (Rage) because it told too much of the story through the characters chatting to each other?
Not to worry. I've run out of things to write for now, so I'm going to let that bit of fun and frivolity sit and contemplate its own toenails for a while. And go back to working on a rhyming picture book, just to make myself feel creative (not).
Finished Kathy Reichs (very enjoyable, apart from a bit at the end where the sheriff did a big explanation/info dump so us readers would know what happened - clunky). Am now reading "Fragrant Harbour" by John Lanchester. I've had it there for ages - lost under a pile of other stuff, like many things in my house - and suddenly found it the other day and thought Hong Kong! I have to read this. Because I am going back to HK in November to do more things with our new training business (writing and editing mainly) and would really like to know more about the history of the place.
How are my Mandarin lessons going? Very good (hen hao) thank you (xiexie). In last week's class I learned how to ask where the ladies' toilet is. And I know how to order two beers. Two vital sentences.
Maybe I should write my picture book in Mandarin. It might improve it.


Snail said...

My two pet peeves with dialogue: info dumps and phonetically-rendered dialect. You can skip over the first problem but the second is insidious.

I'm reading a novel at the moment in which the West Indian characters say things like 'dat' and 'dere' and 'dem'. This is a 2006 novel, not something from the 19th century. What was the author thinking? (Or the editor, for that matter.)

Sherryl said...

That wouldn't be the new Elizabeth George, would it?

Snail said...

Not the Elizabeth George. It's the new Barry Maitland, Spider Trap. (It also contains a reference to a 'grizzly corpse.')

Here's a pretty standard line of dialogue:

'The whole street's talkin' about it. They say it's a Yardie burial ground. Is dat for true?'

And here's my favourite exchange:

'Not on t'phone. Dem bwoys real bad, seen? You know dem. Is like dem cyan wait fe kill someone. I don't need fe talk to nobody, but I do need fe get money, seen?'

'Yes. I understand.'