Saturday, September 7, 2013

Talking the Talk - Dialogue

When I was ten years old I got to meet my Great Aunt Carrie for the first time. She was a cool old lady. A retired teacher, a writer, the family historian and an avid reader. She also had a house full of books and treasures she had collected throughout her life, including two complete civil war uniforms (North and South) and a computer printout of our family tree that stretched a good twenty feet or more long. Usually when my family came to visit I would leave with one of her treasures, which she seemed more than happy to part with.
One such treasure that I have thought a lot about lately is a pulp sci-fi magazine she gave me, one that included the story by Harlan Ellison titled, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” (Sadly the magazine has been lost or destroyed many, many years ago).

Because this is where I’ve been at lately: With no mouth, or rather—no voice. For the past month+ I’ve been unable to talk, thanks to radiation treatments to my neck and throat. In the short term these treatments have been terrible—making it tough for me to eat (I’ve lost a lot of weight), and impossible for me to speak. Hopefully in the long term the treatments will be worthwhile and will keep the cancer at bay for good. Then this will have been worth it.

I’m not sure I necessarily need to scream, although my physical condition combined with having no voice certainly has been full of frustrations. Have you ever tried to go a day/week/month without talking? I don’t recommend it. Having no voice really comes with some challenges and learnings. Especially when a lot of people in my life, including my doctors, health insurance company(s) and so on, all love to communicate by telephone.

In the last month instead of talking I’ve used the following alternatives:
           • Hand gestures (mostly polite)
           • Charades (which I suck at)
           • E-mail and instant messages (thank goodness for technology)
           • Having my son/wife answer phone calls/speak for me
           • Using the iSpeech App for iPad (it’s not too bad, but you need to be on a network for it to read the words you type in).
           • Handwriting on countless notebooks and pieces of scratch paper.

People’s reactions to my lack of voice are interesting too, especially strangers. At the clinic, more than one person started to sign to me, in response to my handwritten notebook messages. I don’t “speak” “sign” so this really didn’t help. Some people would pick up my notebook (take it away—hey you just stole my voice!) and would write responses to me, rather than talking to me. (If you have no voice, apparently you can’t hear either.) I’m not being critical, but to me it was just interesting how people reacted and how accommodating they tried to be).

So my voice is finally coming back. I can’t really hold a great conversation yet. It hurts a little to talk, and afterwards my throat tends to be more tight/swollen than usual. Not much fun, but every day is a little better. Soon I’ll be talking again—which I have missed.

So what does this blog (and my lack of voice) have to do with writing? Well, I am currently very in tune with dialogue.

In writing my rough draft of my novel, SUNLIGHT, I took the approach of starting many of the chapters/scenes just by writing down dialogue, a conversation between two characters, or maybe the internal dialogue of the main character. It worked pretty well, I think, and I could go back in later and fill in the non-talky details. Most of the chapters move pretty quickly, and I think you get to know the characters pretty easy, thanks in part to dialogue.

When reading books I find I often look forward to the sections of dialogue between the characters. If I’m getting bored reading I might skip blocks of descriptive text, but I’m not likely to skip the dialogue. Well written dialogue tends to read quickly and informs us about the characters. It is truly their voice. It is one of the many components of good writing (along with word choice, narration, details, gestures, etc.) that helps a writer build character and story.

There are many articles that exist about how to write great dialogue. Common ideas I’ve found when it comes to writing great dialogue are:
           • Listen to how people talk (natural speech patterns)
           • Good dialogue should seem like “real” speech, but it should be more than that.
           • Don’t do “info dumps” in dialogue
           • Minimize dialogue “tags” (“said” is OK, and maybe better than finding different descriptors for every time a person says something)
           • Don’t overdo slang, or regional dialects (too heavy on the dialect may make your characters seem unintelligent)
           • You may wish to add details/gestures to describe what your characters are up to/what their emotions are as they speak
           • Sometimes the most powerful things in conversation are the things NOT said (and left off the page)

For the last month or so as I’ve been in pain and on heavy medication which has played havoc with my reading (hard for me to concentrate) I’ve tended to watch a lot of movies and TV. Here are some examples of great dialogue and word play that I really like.

Freudian slips have a place in dialogue

I love how the dialogue establishes the scene and the characters. Fun wordplay!

Man this is cool dialogue “I’m in my prime.” “Should I hate him?”

Snows of Mount Killamanjaro (Short story by Ernest Hemingway)
There is some excellent dialogue in this short story

Wishing you a strong voice, lively conversation, and robust dialogue in your writing.

Hope to talk with you soon!



Shawn Enderlin said...

I can't imagine. I've tried, but I can't. I guess it's better than losing your sight, but still.

Strangely enough, I've actually picked up a trick or two about writing dialogue by reading comics. The bad ones can be really stilted but the good ones really shine in the way they convey character through subtle word play.

PS hang in there, dude.

Jon said...

On the upside, at least at the next meeting the rest of us will FINALLY be able to get a word or two in...