Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stilted, stunted or stupid?

I don't know about you but one of the principal reasons why I give up on a book or a film (for that matter) is when the dialogue lets the story down in a big way. You know the sort of thing I mean:

"Honey, I'm sorry about all those other women"

"You promise there won't be any more?"

"I swear it"

"OK then"

I can't believe my wife responding like that. I’m not entirely sure the exact words she’d use but I think they might be a little more, how can I put it, pointed. I’m not just getting at writers of the good old bodice-ripper romances, either. Action books frequently fail to come up to the mark, too.

For example:

"I know this sounds crazy but we've got to carry out this really dangerous mission if we're to save everyone"

"But we could all get killed in the process. Have you thought about that?"

"I know but we've no choice. I need your expertise if we’re to pull it off"

"I'm in then"

Would you risk life and limb so readily? If so, remind me not to ask you to pack my parachute should we ever go sky-diving together. I think I’d let you go first, if you don’t mind.

Every genre has its equivalent - I've just picked on two popular ones. The thing is that, in my experience as a publisher, many authors get so caught up in the plot that they forget about the dialogue's role in the story. It strikes me a large proportion of writers perceive the interchanges between characters as either a silly device for introducing new people "You've met my cousin Jim, haven't you?" or for far too conveniently 'discovering' the ‘deus ex machina’ solution to the climatic dilemma "Hey! I've just remembered I've got another ..." in the 'Here comes the cavalry!" style.

Dialogue should not be used in this way. It's there to make sense of situations, to give depth and color to your characters and to transform an extended essay into a work of literature. It's quite probably the hardest part of a book to write because of the perpetual battle between being too verbose and being too terse. Since dialogue is often highly challenging to get right, most authors will err on the terse side. As a result, the output frequently comes into my 'stilted, stunted or stupid' category.

It's actually quite easy to avoid and I'll show you how I do it.

When I write a story, my principal concern is getting the plot sorted out. I need to know that I can get from beginning to end without leaving holes or stretching probability to breaking point. Once I've done that, I then break the story down into a series of scenes - just like a film or play would have. In each scene, I consider a number of factors such as:
  • Who's going to be present
  • What the opening situation stands at (who knows what, what agenda each character has etc
  • What I want to achieve (an action or exchange of information etc)
  • The nature of the characters present
  • The genre and tone of my book (how much humor I use, how menacing I want it to be etc)
  • Whether the characters speak in a dialect or with a pronounced accent which I wish to replicate
Once I’ve decided all this, the conversation starts to unravel in my head and I just type it up, edit it, and add in some emphatic punctuation (if appropriate) and a bit of text (having pure dialogue is extremely wearing).

To help you achieve the same goal, I’d like you to follow a small piece of advice. When you’re writing up the dialogue, instead of concentrating solely on the end goal and getting there as quickly as possible, imagine you’re standing in the shoes of each of your characters in turn. What's their take on this?

Bear in mind that real people (for the most part) don't:
  • Stick to the point
  • Treat conversations like business meetings
  • Just accept whatever you tell them
  • Tell you what they're thinking
They do:
  • 'Um' and 'ah' a lot
  • Crack jokes, relate anecdotes, 'behave unprofessionally'
  • Possess a history
  • Have their own agendas
Try to hear the scene in your own head or, better still, grab a few passing friends to play out the parts. Does the scene sound realistic?

Speech like "Flash! I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth" may have worked a dream in Flash Gordon (the line’s a true classic and deserves to be preserved for posterity) but, unless you're writing in that genre, it’s best avoided.

Clive West has written 4 books of his own and also runs a publishing company with his wife, a fellow author. He's an ardent believer in the combined power of plot and dialogue and you can find plenty of examples in his full-length novel, The Road. For more information about Clive, his books and his publishing business, visit his company's website or Facebook page.

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