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Friday, 20 September 2013

Fluid Dialogue in Prose

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Fluid Dialogue in Prose

(A post regarding the art of conversation)


They say that the art of conversation is a dying art form; most of the time, I'm inclined to agree. No one talks to each other anymore. Well, not verbally anyway. These days it's always IM this and SMS that; what happened to opening our pie holes and flapping our gums? It's rather upsetting to see that happen. Just as upsetting as it is to see little dialogue in books, especially fluid prose and stories. But, perhaps even worse than that is bad dialogue.

Now, you may be thinking: 'Why is speech that important in prose? It seems more like a movie script element to me. The point of prose is to describe the picture, not the sound.' Well, yes and no; speech forms a major part of the image. While movies have the advantage of telling a story with auditory and visual effects, written word relies on the reader's imagination. Too much speech can make a story move too slowly, but too little can make a story hollow, with the narrator describing people walking nonstop until they get to the end, finish their journey, and head home in silence, the same as they came up. Decent dialogue between characters is paramount to telling a good story; otherwise, you just have mannequins with clothes on walking around and doing stuff, and no one likes to read novels about mute mannequins. At least, no one I know does. The point is, while prose relies on description to get a story told more heavily than most other forms of story-telling, speech is another component in which it does this, perhaps just not as much as in movies. Consider descriptions to be the base of the painting, flat colours that show an image but make it look rather lax and lifeless, and speech to be the shading, light and dark tones that bring another dimension to the picture and make it generally more pleasant to look at.
But, it only works if it's done right. There are so many ways to make mistakes with dialogue in written prose, it's easy to slip up. Below are just some of the ways this occurs, as well as a few methods to go the extra mile.

Bad Dialogue:
  • Betrayal of the speaking character: This is the one that really irks me the most, and it is one of the most common. An inexperienced, uncaring, or perhaps tired writer will invariably betray a character's personality or back story in the way they talk. For example, you could have a character that's been described as illiterate or of lesser intelligence throughout the story, most likely in fantasy or period prose, speaking in especially long and eloquent words, (for example, 'eloquent'.) A smart-alek little twerp with more witticisms than a stand-up comedian suddenly speaking like a respectful philosopher is similar. Perhaps they'll have spoken with a represented accent the entire time or with a stereotypical class inflection, such as 'How d'ya do there, feller?' suddenly speaking in plain English or like a nobleman, like 'How do you do, sir?' Even the period can be betrayed! A fantasy character with a sword and a dagger saying 'Let's lock and load!' or 'It's time to rock and roll!' is not respectful to the character. On the whole, this is one of the biggest pitfalls speech can fall into at the hands of a careless writer. A way to avoid this could be the use of extensive character sheets or profiles including general speech patterns and tendencies, such as jokes, facts, accents, and degree of intellect.
  • Tangents and incomplete speech: Sometimes characters need to get a lot out at once. Maybe they're being interrogated, or maybe they're trying to unload a lot of stress on one person. In this case, it's very easy for them to go off on tangents mid-way through a sentence and never end up completing that original point, leaving two fragmented sentences slapped together in a Frankenstein-esque piece of unintelligible nonsense. For example, "And then the one-armed man, who I remembered seeing that time in the park where he was playing with the birds." What? What did the one-armed man do? If the writer isn't paying attention, this can happen a lot. Furthermore, it's possible that a writer can form a complete sentence within a sentence, or as I call it, 'senception,' (hur-hur) while leaving the original point unfinished. If we look at our one-armed man example again, perhaps it can go a little like this: "And then the one-armed man, the same one-armed man that I saw in the park on Monday playing with the birds." A little attention, and perhaps reading back if you think you missed the point, can go a LONG way as far as this one's concerned.
  • Infodumping: An infodump is a commonly used way of describing something crucial by dumping the info on the reader in one big go, (hence 'infodump',) which can be tedious and make the reader feel bombarded like they're in a lecture or the character seem like just a Word document with the speech function on. Let's imagine, for example, that we lived in a world were cows were all mythical, and only one person knew about them. If they go off on a long-winded explanation about the cow's shape, height, hair, diet, habitat, sleeping habits, mating habits, blood types, regularity, stomach capacities and various religious beliefs, then you will probably get bored brainless, enough to fall asleep, walk away, or just straight up punch them in the jaw. By adding a bit of personality or breaking up the information with questions from other characters or even stopping now and coming back to it later, (like 'I learned another fact about cows today!') you ease the sudden rush of information, that may be crucial later, upon the reader. Or, if you're daring and you have the right character, you can have the genius that knows everything recite it from a book or say it naturally, while breaking it up with personality and the occasional bit of narration, such as a thought like 'When will he shut up already?' or an action like 'Finally unable to take no more, I punched him in the jaw.'
  • Plot, all the time: Speech is one of a writer's biggest and best tools for developing a character. Conversations that last two lines, answer an important question about the plot, and then go back to walking along the path in silence will get you nowhere, with only a bunch of two-dimensional, faceless nametags to keep you company with horrible conversations. An important thing to remember is that a character is a person with a personality like you; they can have opinions, talents, knacks and different vocabularies. Just keeping on-task and answering story-only questions in a manner like 'Where's the Dark Wizard?' 'Over there.' 'Let's kill him now.' 'Okay.' will make a story seem like a chore to have been written, and thus make it a chore to be read. Go off on the occasional tangential exchange, like what kind of apples they like, or let them have an argument. A well-placed and well-spoken joke never made a story worse. By allowing your characters to have human conversations rather than character exchanges, you make them less of just characters, and make them more human, allowing the reader to identify with them, perhaps because they like the same kinds of apples.
So now that we've covered the various traps that can be made by less-than-stellar speech, let's see what we can do to make a character's conversations a little more fluid and natural.
  • Let them show their interests: Perhaps a character's personality doesn't have to be spoken outright; it can be hinted at in what they say. For example, let's say that Danny has a love of poetry, particularly one of the poems found in Marcine Stern's 'Jubilations Just'. (N.B. Don't search for that; it's not real, it's something I came up with for my own works.) If put in a fitting situation, perhaps Danny would, instead of saying something organic, reply with "'The shadows come in their merry flood, With a raft that none can see.'" (Again, it's not a real poem!) I imagine they were talking about trying to find the positive raft in the flood of negativity. Anyway, that coupled with perhaps a thought from another character, or a question along the lines of 'Where's that from?' shows that Danny has a diverse interest in poetry. This helps to give the reader an even better impression of Danny without the writer having to resort to the oh-so-dreaded infodump. A warning: too much poetry could make Danny seem even more pretentious than he already is; anyone who quotes poetry at random is pretentious, and proud of it too.
  • Mannerisms: Good, well-developed characters have tics. Perhaps it's clicking their tongue when they're annoyed, adding an upper inflection to the end of every sentence, (stories set in L.A. with young, blonde, female characters, for example,) higher pitched voices when stressed, or the modern sentence stuffers 'Like', 'y'know', and 'whatever'. It may seem Brechtian if you go over the top with it, making a character nothing more than a tic, but by adding it in once every few pages or so, you give them an iconic personality fragment that helps to set them apart as individuals. N.B.: Don't do this with EVERY character; cracking knuckles, or brushing hair out of their eyes, or even crossing their arms is just as good if you want to go down this road. A few characters can go without having massively obvious tics, making the absence of a tic a tic in itself, so don't rattle your brain thinking 'Maybe he could tap his fingers... No, Freddy does that... Maybe he could hum? Oh, that's not something people do at random...'
  • Relationship-developing and -exposing conversations: Characters get introduced all the time; it's one thing to use speech to identify a character, and another to help identify the intercommunication between two or more. Let's imagine, for example, that Susie is the star of a story in which she must tackle her overbearing teachers and their hard assignments in a new school. On the way, she meets Jenny, an entirely new character with no prior development. Getting into a conversation over a dropped book or some advice for the new girl, they discover they both love A Capella music, (I don't know, maybe she's carrying a CD or some sheet music. Come on! I can't think of a hundred good examples!) By discussing A Capella, not only do both Susie and Jenny get developed as individuals with tastes, but the relationship between them develops and becomes thicker, with more or less compatibility; everyone has a relationship to one another, but not all of them are good ones. Likewise, if Susie has an older brother, Mick, who the reader hasn't met yet but Susie obviously has, their relationship can be developed through speech. Perhaps they make witty remarks off each other, or they call each other lighthearted names. The reader can instantly see that these two are on good terms and like each other. Or, if they insult each other and squabble, the reader can see that they shouldn't share a room. This is different from Susie and Jenny's relationship in that it already exists between them, but is being exposed to the reader.
So what can we say about dialogue? (See what I did there?) It's an important facet of any story, whether film, prose, extended prose, or any kind of writing with the possible exception of poetry. But what's more is that it's a delicate art form to get right, and we need to experience it ourselves to truly understand how to make it work. I guess that's as good an excuse as any to actually talk to people rather than text them, right?

To sum up: talking = good. Talking badly = counter-productive. Talking and making it work well = fan-damn-tastic!

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