Thoughts On Dialogue

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith.

This month, we analyse a passage of dialogue from The Red King, by Victor Kelleher, to see what makes effective dialogue. Here is the passage itself:

‘Petie was sitting on a low wooden stool in the centre of the clearing, the mist and the smoke from the camp fire curling about him. There was no sign of the animals. His thin body was hunched over a flat piece of rock which he was using as a table; and his long fingers, heavy with rings, were busily drawing gold coins from a leather pouch which she had often seen hanging at her Master’s belt.
         

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’
         

He swung towards her, gold coins spilling from his cupped hands, a mischievous smile forming on his lips. ‘Do I deserve no payment for saving you from the fever?’ he asked. ‘Not even a few paltry coins?’
         

‘It’s not just the coins!’ she shouted, and pointed to the collar encircling her neck. ‘This didn’t belong to you! It wasn’t yours to use like this!’

‘But it was also part of your master’s property,’ he countered. ‘The collar and the gold together. Why should I keep one and give up the other?’

‘I’ve already told you,’ she protested. ‘He made me free. Free! You had no right … no right …!’

‘No right?’ he interrupted. ‘Without me you would be dead. And there’s little freedom in the grave, Timkin, I assure you of that.’

‘I’d rather be in the grave than wearing this again!’ she replied hotly.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.’

 

 

SYDNEY:-
DialogueOne of the first things I noticed about this passage of dialogue is the power transfer. At the start, the power balance is fairly equal between the two characters, with a slight leaning toward Timkin, who has taken the moral high ground.

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’

By the end of the piece, Petie has taken power by adopting a menacing tone of voice.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.

The Red KingKelleher underlines the menace in Petie’s tone by describing it. This has at least two functions. The first is to emphasise the power transfer. Emphasis is a vital part of good narrative. The second function is to draw a line under the dialogue sequence. The scene goes on but this bit of power transfer has been framed and divided from the next bit of the story by the description of Petie’s sinister tone of voice.

JENNY:-
This is an excellent passage to show how dialogue should convey an underlying tension. The conflict here is obvious – one character has the other captive. Timkin is moving in the direction of her desire – freedom. Petie is maintaining his desire – to hold her prisoner – and upping the ante by making veiled threats. Readers expect dialogue to have this kind of purpose and direction. They expect to be led somewhere and Kelleher does this.

tom-chiarella-011aa

Tom Chiarella

But is tension always  necessary? Yes. Good dialogue is a combination of desire on the part of one character weighed against the tension inherent in the scene. You may think there isn’t always tension when people speak. A family conversation, for example, where people love each other. Does that sort of dialogue need tension? Of course! (For many of us, family causes more conflict than anything else.) It doesn’t have to be grand conflict. In his wonderful essay on writing dialogue Tom Chiarella puts it this way.

‘Tension is more like the energy between charged particles. It’s always there, even when two people agree. Think of two cars traveling a reasonable distance apart from one another along an interstate at sixty-five miles an hour. Safe distance.Same direction. Same speed. No tension, right? Wrong. We all know it only takes one little bump in the road, one touch of the brakes, a deer in the headlights for everything to be completely and suddenly redefined.’

 

SYDNEY:-
Yes, dialogue always has to have tension. I would only qualify what you said, Jenny, by saying that BOTH characters have desire. They are clashing desires. This is what causes the tension. In Kelleher’s excerpt, you can see that each character states their position clearly and so they fight it out through dialogue. Other pertinent information is shown through the narrative bits that frame the dialogue. What you get is a layered piece of storytelling through dialogue.

JENNY:-
Each line of dialogue simply responding to the previous one, bloated dialogue, is one of the most common mistakes of new writers. Speech in novels should be stylised. It should sidestep the obvious with off-centre responses, questions, silence or body language.

So ‘This is wonderful fruit cake. Sue.’
     ‘Thanks Jill.’
     ‘Can I have the recipe?’
     ‘Of course.’

Could become …

      ‘This is wonderful fruit cake, Sue.’
       Her sister never handed out compliments. What was going on?
      ‘Can I have the recipe?’
Sue shoved her chair back from the table. ‘I need a drink.’

Much more interesting!

SYDNEY:-
Indeed! I switched off at the first passage between Sue and Jill, but at the second passage, I sat up straight and paid attention! Dialogue is meant to have that effect. Readers know they’re meant to sit up and pay attention when dialogue comes into it.

JENNY:-
I do have one problem with the Kelleher excerpt, and that’s his use of dialogue tags. I strongly believe that said becomes invisible and is all that’s needed. The occasional whispered or shouted is okay, but not protested, countered or replied hotly. It just distracts me.

I’m not a fan of loads of dialogue in fiction. No response is often the best response, so sometimes it’s good to simply shut your characters up. Silence can show confusion, pain, determination, anger – any number of emotions. It allows the rest of the scene to carry the weight via action, sensory description, physical details, thoughts or even the rhythm of words themselves.

SYDNEY:-
Dialogue 3Yes, dialogue gains in texture if the writer uses other ways of conveying what’s going on with the characters, or if they’re inventive with their character responses. It takes practice and confidence to know when to use words and when an action will do the job just as well or better.

Also, dialogue does not replace action. As a manuscript assessor, I read many, many manuscripts by writers who thought dialogue was always showing, not telling. So they wrote reams of dialogue in which this kind of thing happened:

Joe said, ‘Look who is coming down the street. It is Leonard, carrying a bazooka. He is talking to a woman. A police car is following them.’

Sam said, ‘I am filling the kettle and putting it on the stove. Do you want coffee? I have a bad feeling about that bazooka. I was in Nam as a kid of eighteen and weapons make me think of those days. That is why I became a Federal police officer.’

The purpose of this sort of dialogue is to inform the reader. It isn’t about an exchange between two characters with clashing goals. But dialogue shouldn’t be merely an info dump. Dialogue has a dramatic function that must be fulfilled at all times.

When a reader starts reading a story, they enter into a contract. This contract involves trust – the reader gives the story their trust that it will do its job properly and carry them away on a wave of enchantment. If a story breaks that contract, it loses the reader, who stops reading or switches off or gets distracted. Dialogue that lacks dramatic tension breaks that contract.

BB14

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