Friday, July 21, 2006

The Blank Page - Looking at Dialogue

First up a big thanks for your patience while I gradually melt my way through the days here… The Met office promises a few days a degree or two lower… here’s hopin!!!

Now, dialogue. You’d think this would be a breeze, wouldn’t you? After all, we spend every day of our lives speaking , right? But when it comes to using it as a part of the greater puzzle that is putting together a book it transforms into something very different and often difficult.

‘Cos we’re not just using it as a way of getting our characters to talk; we are also using it to show their attitude, their mood, their personality, their relationship with whoever their talking to and even the small matter of where they’re from…

Oh, and it also has to flow – pulling the story along…

So, let’s think about this logically. Well, at least as logically as you can from the recesses of my mind.

And remember, when we talk about dialogue, you need to see it as a layer. You’ll hear writers talking a lot about adding a layer of one thing or another. A layer is an ingredient, a part of what makes up the whole, and hopefully some of this little chat will show you that…

For me, the real test of good dialogue is if it can have everything else around it pulled out, and still make sense and give us information…

Let’s work on Marriage Lost And Found:

First with dialogue only…

“Hello A.J.”
“Happy Birthday.”
“You know this guy?”
“You could say that.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met, I’m Abigail’s Mother.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
“You’re American.”
“Yes, I am. And you are?”
“I’m Abbey’s boyfriend.”
“That’s nice. I’m Ethan Wyatt. Abbey’s husband.”

From this you can see the dialogue has flowed along like a normal conversation. It’s a first meeting for many of the characters, and that’s apparent from the way that much of the dialogue is polite, maybe even a little formal. Try speaking it aloud, does it make sense? Do you get a sense of what’s going on?

Dialogue is the first of many layers. It should make sense on it’s own, especially when spoken aloud. And accents in bold should make sense when emphasized as you speak them. Then we add another couple of layers in the form of movement and inner thought to complete it…

She watched Karyn’s eyes as they gradually moved up to look at the man, felt the air displace behind her and was about to turn when a deep voice sounded,
“Hello A.J.”
Her breath caught in her chest and she slowly turned to look up into familiar hazel eyes. It couldn’t be, but it was. He was here.
Ethan smiled a slow, lazy smile at her, “Happy Birthday.”
Karyn moved slightly to stand at their side, “You know this guy?”
Abbey’s heart pounded noisily against her ribcage, her eyes still refusing to believe what they saw in front of her. She’d thought about it for so long. What she’d say and do, every reaction rehearsed a million times over in waking and sleeping moments. And when it came down to it, she’d managed his name. Stunning repartee.
“You could say that,” She murmured.
They continued staring at each other as Paul and Elizabeth moved closer too.
“I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Abigail’s Mother.”
Ethan turned slightly and smiled more broadly, “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You’re American,” Paul stated the obvious.
“Yes, I am. And you are?”
“I’m Abbey’s boyfriend.”
Ethan raised a dark eyebrow as Paul shook his hand, “That’s nice.” He glanced at Abbey from the corner of his eye, still shaking Paul’s hand as he added, “I’m Ethan Wyatt. Abbey’s husband.”

So here you can see that the dialogue is a building block. It carries the scene forwards, allows us to then add the extra layers that fill in the missing pieces for the reader so that a more complete picture is formed.

And then we have the subtleties – for instance let’s look at Abbey’s name. She’s Abbey to the reader, to her boyfriend Paul and yet to her Mother she is Abigail and to Ethan she is A.J. These differences then become threads as the book progresses. We discover that her relationship with her Mother is strained, hence the more formal use of her name. It’s not until they begin to bond a little better, and their relationship improves, that her Mother then refers to her as Abbey. She is always Abbey to her friends and those who know her best, including the reader we want to feel knows her too. And she’s only ever A.J. to Ethan, so that we can see that the relationship she had with him was very individual. It was his nick-name for her, so she immediately knows it’s him before she even recognizes his voice or turns around to look at him. But that was a nick-name in the past and again, as the story progresses, he uses both forms of her name; Abbey and Abigail. Abbey when they are together and close, Abigail when he wants to tease her… Showing progression in their relationship in the here and now…

Clever huh? I have my moments you know…

But as this story progresses the dialogue tells us many other things. One of the major things it does in this story is highlight the different places our Hero and Heroine come from. She is Irish, he is American. So where she will refer to a footpath; he will refer to a sidewalk. She may talk about the boot of a car; he will refer to the trunk. This means we are always reminded of the differences in their backgrounds.

So, think about where your characters come from. How do the people there speak? If you have them very upper class British then they will speak terribly correctly; will use 'because' instead of ‘cos'. If English is a second language then their dialogue may be stilted at times, may well be interspersed with words from their own language.

I’m often told that there is a very distinct Irish-ness to my books. A compliment I love to hear. But it’s not something I find myself very conscious of doing. I don’t add a lot of background description apart from naming places and making the scenery green. But what I do do is have the people talk as they would over here. Something which ironically enough a reviewer criticized me for in the book we have been using as an example. This particular reviewer found it 'too Irish' in places. And I think I have one character in particular to blame for that…

Hearing music from inside the Fiddler’s as he grew near, he poked his head around the door to see if she was there.
“Ethan!” A chorus of greetings met him from inside, “Come on in and have a jar.”
His eyes glancing round in a unsuccessful search, he moved closer to the bar, “Hey, Tom. How’s that arthritis of yours doing?”
Tom rubbed at his hip, “Sure it’s playing me up all right. I need you to mix me up some of that cure of yours again to make it better.”
Ethan grinned, “Not right now Tom. Maybe later,” He glanced around again, “I don’t s’pose
you’ve seen Abbey anywhere?”
“Ah, sure, she’s away off to Dublin.”
His grin faded, “You sure about that?”
“Aye,” Tom nodded wisely, “John, my youngest, works down at the garage at the other end of town and she filled her car there this mornin’. Off back to Dublin she said.”
“I see.” He frowned hard.
Tom reached out and patted his arm, “Have a drink Ethan.”
Much as he suddenly felt the need for one, he shook his head, “Thanks Tom, but I have to be going. I’ll have to take a rain check on that.”
“What’s that then?”
He managed a small smile, “It means
I hold you to that drink ‘til the next time we meet.”

Tom, bless him, permanent resident at the bar of the Fiddler’s; speaks exactly the way most older Irishmen in bars in tiny villages in Ireland do. His dialogue reflects that. As does Ethan’s Americanism when he uses a phrase that Tom doesn’t understand and has to then explain it…

And if you took out the movement and inner thought layers would that dialogue still make sense? Would you still get that sense of Tom being Irish? And would you still get what was going on???

I read a lot of the works of other Author's both in the lines I write for and beyond. And all of them have this stand-alone quality to their dialogue. Even if they may not realize they're doing it as they write it. Try it with a book from your keeper shelf 'til you see! I bet you'll still have a clear idea of what's going on and I bet if you read the dialogue aloud it will seem very real to you. If it's well done you may even find youself acting out the parts as you speak!

Now that's a sign of good dialogue!!!
There’s so much to go through with dialogue that I’m gonna split it into a few sessions again…

So next time we’ll look at some examples of how we can reveal back-story through dialogue rather than through long descriptive passages…

If everyone hasn’t disappeared off to the conference that is and I'm here talking to myself….

It's off to the heat and the WIP I go...


Liz Fielding said...

Fabulous piece on dialogue, Trish. One to print out for the file, I think!

Trish said...

OMG! Thankyou!!! And ladies! If you want an example of fabulous dialogue then this lovely ladies books are as far as you need to go!!!