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Monday, 17 February 2014

Writing tips - Dialogue speaks volumes

Dialogue must move the story forward and reads faster than narrative. As Anthony Trollope said, ‘The dialogue must tend in some way to the telling of the story.’ Which means, dialogue is there:

  • To carry on the plot
  • To foreshadow coming conflict
  • To reveal character
  • To indicate the setting
Never get characters to speak so that it’s obvious that they’re spoon-feeding the reader with information (the dreaded infodump springs to mind).

Move the story and build up the character with dialogue.

Remember, dialogue is there for a purpose – it isn’t just filler – so avoid the ‘one lump or two, vicar’ kind that tells us nothing.

The way your characters speak should appear natural – without the real ums and ers. Real speech is not good dialogue. Good dialogue gives the semblance of real speech.

Stilted over-formal expressions are usually fatal to dialogue. Naturally, it’s possible to have a character who speaks in a particular stilted fashion – that’s his characterisation.

The majority of people speak using contractions – I’ll, I’m and we’ve, for example: I am, I will and we have are stilted and again slow down the speech.

Try to make each speech pattern appropriate to the character. One person might use lengthy sentences with long words, while another will speak in a terse fashion.

Dialogue is always useful where there might be a tendency to POV-switch. Instead of jumping into another character’s head and thoughts, get that character to voice his thoughts.

Avoid vernacular. Yes, in short bursts it might be humorous or even character defining, but it can soon wear thin over a novel’s length. Don’t overdo the truncatin’ of words, either. Modern readers don’t like to struggle with the meaning of what a character is saying – dialogue should flow and be clear. Besides, vernacular and unusual phrasing slows down the story. Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth (1917) is a deserved classic, but it wouldn’t be a runaway bestseller now – its vernacular makes it heavy going to the modern eye and ear.

There’s a tendency for beginner writers to have their characters constantly using each other’s name in a conversation:
          ‘I know, Josh, it’s awful.’

‘Yes, indeed, Mary, I don’t know what to say.’

‘But Josh, we must do something!’

‘I guess so, maybe we could stop referring to each other by name, since we know that already – and besides, there’s nobody else in the room?’

‘What a good idea, Josh!’

So, if it’s obvious that it’s only Josh and Mary speaking, dispense with the verbal reference – or indicate by gestures linked to the character’s words, e.g.:

Josh ran a hand over his face. ‘I’m really worried.’

Mary’s eyes searched his face. ‘What about?’

Try to convey the period, the person’s profession and background, and the character with the use of appropriate vocabulary.

Dialogue can also suggest mood or emotion in a scene. A shared painful past is hinted at in the pages of The $300 Man, for example where Corbin meets Jean (pp18-22). It’s a rather lengthy sample, but I think it illustrates many of the points already discussed. Here, I’ve tried to underplay the anguish and create a mood through dialogue, gesture and observation. Yes, dialogue isn’t always in speech – but in body language.

He rapped on the door with his hook.

         ‘Who is it?’ Jeannie’s voice was throaty and tremulous; perhaps a little rougher round the edges than he remembered.

         ‘It’s the man who saved you from Turner’s knife.’

         ‘Yes, of course, Mrs Begley said you’d be back.’

         The key in the lock turned.

         He thought it odd that she should lock the door now though not while she was being intimate with her customers.

         He heard her move away from the door and some wooden furniture creaked. ‘Come in,’ she said.

         Opening the door, he tried to smother the memory from an hour earlier, when Jeannie had been threatened and bleeding. He entered the room, taking off his hat, and closed the door after him.

         She sat in a rocking chair. Looking at him from hollowed eye-sockets, she seemed malnourished. The jutting cones of her breasts were more pronounced than he recalled, pressing against some white gauzy material while her legs were covered by a white frilly petticoat. Her feet were bare. She hadn’t managed to clean away all the blood, he noticed; there were traces on the bridge of her left foot.

         ‘Thank you for stopping Mr Turner, sir,’ she said, and offered a lop-sided smile.

         Her smile hadn’t been that way before, he realised. Something had altered her face – her nose still turned up at the tip, but it had been broken and was now slightly askew. The freckles were barely noticeable under the powder. Her thin lips usually offered the promise of a winsome smile but now they were dark red and unnatural. At one time her hazel eyes sent his heart soaring when she looked at him, but now she was hardly focussing on him or her world. Her mind was in some dark and distant place. Life once brimmed from her, now it was little more than a flickering candle in a gale.

         ‘Have your cuts been doctored?’

         She blinked, returning from her reverie, and nodded. ‘Mrs Begley brought in Doc Bassett. He sewed up two cuts and the rest weren’t too deep. The iodine stings, but he says I’ll be OK.’

         ‘Just keep the wounds clean,’ he said. He refrained from commenting on how many young lives he’d witnessed being snuffed out on account of dirty wounds.

         ‘Thank you for caring, Mister.’ Her smile was thin, fragile, as if she was afraid that it may be misconstrued, his kindness sullied.

         Hands gripping the brim of his hat, he said, ‘You don’t recognise me, Jean, do you?’

         ‘No, I can’t say as I do.’ She gave him another travesty of a smile. ‘You appreciate, I entertain many gentlemen. Unfortunately, my memory isn’t as good as it was, you know?’ She lowered her feet to the floorboards and thrust herself out of the chair, which creaked in protest at being abandoned.

         ‘Let me take a good look at you,’ she said, gliding up to him. She still walked with an enchanting serene movement; once, he’d thought of her as poetry in motion.

         He looked down at her and he could see the stirrings of memory reasserting something in her, in the glinting of her eyes.

         Brow wrinkled, she glanced at his hook and then his skewed nose. ‘We make a good pair, don’t we?’ she said.

         ‘Yes, I guess we do.’

         She eyed the small scar on his forehead. Reaching up, she brushed a hand gently through his black hair, lingering on the clump of white hair on the left, just above the scar. At one time her touch would have sent his heart pounding; now he just felt sad. Finally, her gaze lingered on his. There was no mistake. Recognition widened her eyes and moisture formed at the rims. She stepped back a pace, a hand rising to her chest, over her heart. What little colour she had seemed to drain from her face. ‘Corbin? Is it really you?’


         ‘Oh, my God,’ she whispered, turning away. She crossed over to the bed and sat down, studying her feet and let tears fall to the floor where they darkened the dust and wood. ‘Oh, my God.’ A small fist beat at her right breast, plaintively.

         He moved to sit beside her on the bed but refrained from touching her. ‘It’s been a long time, Jean.’

         She nodded. ‘A lifetime.’

         Having observed the change wrought in her, he could understand how she must feel. He’d last seen her in ’62 – twelve years ago.

         ‘You’ve changed,’ she said, her hands resting in her lap. Turning her head, she studied him, eyes ranging over his broad shoulders and muscular arms and thighs. ‘You’re taller, bigger – quite a man now, Corbin.’ She shook her head. ‘I didn’t know about the hand – well, anything really.’

         He could feel the trembling of her body transmitted through the bed’s mattress. At any other time he might have appreciated the irony, of sitting here on a bed with her; in those far-off days he had coveted her young nubile form, though he hadn’t rightly understood all the emotions that had threshed through his adolescent frame. Now, he understood all too well.

         Gently, he placed his hand on hers. ‘Life changes us. I’ve been through a war – and a lot besides.’

         She gave a wan smile. ‘You don’t want to know what I’ve endured, Corbin. You really don’t.’ She looked away again, the back of her hand wiping the tears from mottled cheeks. ‘Best you just go and leave me be.’

         Corbin shook his head. ‘No, I came to see you. I’m not leaving.’

         She faced him again, her eyes wide with a cynical edge to them, which he found surprisingly distasteful. Her upper lip curled. ‘You want me, is that it?’

         ‘No, Jean. I didn’t turn up here as a customer.’

         ‘Client,’ she corrected.

         ‘Whatever. As it happens, you’re the fourth Jean I’ve tracked down. The others were false trails.’

         ‘Tracked down?’

         ‘Oh, I haven’t made it my business. Sometimes, though, in my travels, I get to hear about a woman called Jean and the description seems to fit yours.’ He eyed her copper-coloured hair and felt impelled to stroke it, as if that motion would brush away the past so they could return to those times of innocence. He raised a hand and gestured vaguely. ‘So I take a detour, just to put my mind at rest. Today, my detour found the real Jean.’

         ‘But why are you looking for me?’ Her eyes shone with a forlorn hope.

         ‘I wanted to be sure that you’re all right. And there are a few things I need to know – things only you can tell me.’

- extracted from Write a Western in 30 Days (pp117-122) Available as an e-book from here and from here

The $300 Man (hardback) is available from the book depository post free worldwide here

Review. When I started Nik Morton's WRITE A WESTERN IN 30 DAYS, what struck me was that this wasn't just a book of guidelines and tid bits for someone attempting a western, this is a fantastic map to anyone who wants to dive into the world of genre fiction. What Morton lays out are some of the best, common-sense rules for writing that I've ever come across - especially the chapters on plotting and structure. If you're not writing a western, it doesn't matter; what can be found in this book can be applied to any genre novel... Morton lays a solid foundation for a way for writers to follow a path to get their work done in the cleanest, most efficient way possible - and discover their best work besides. Highly recommended. - C. Courtney Joyner, film producer, author of Shotgun.

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