Friday, January 27, 2017

Deadly Dialogue Makes Murder Boring

I bought a book a few days ago because I liked the premise and setting, and pets were part of the mix. What could be better?

I won’t know, because I put it down after ten pages. I rarely do that, but I couldn’t take 150 pages of multi-sentence dialogue that was supposed to provide background. Who talks like that? No one even took a sip of coffee.

Sometimes paragraph-speak is part of one character’s persona. When they all talk like that it comes across as an author’s character flaw.

That doesn’t mean short bursts of conversation are essential. In fact, when characters talk as if they’re in a snappy sitcom, that doesn’t seem very genuine either. So what makes for fluid, natural conversation?

In a screenwriting course with the late theater director Davey Marlin-Jones (more years ago than I care to admit) he stressed a key point. People talk in spurts and they interrupt each other a lot. They talk over each other and they finish each other’s sentences.  Maybe not in Shakespearean plays, but in today’s world.

Here are the things I consider as I edit what my characters say. 
  • Would it take more than one breath to get it out?
  • If two or three sentences are essential, can some natural movement break up those words? After all, we rarely sit with our hands in our laps.
  • Can spoken information be revealed another way?
  • What is the person listening to the speaker doing? Can their action or expression alternate with the speaker’s words?
  • Would I (or others in the room with the character) be willing to listen to someone go on and on without interrupting them? If not, why would the reader want to put up with that?·
For every reason to use natural speech patterns, there are requisite opportunities for some characters to be windbags. If there is scientific evidence to present, an investigator would probably let the medical examiner present it. Even then, if you watch Law and Order, you’ll see the detectives pepper the ME with questions. She does tell them to be quiet and let her finish sometimes.

In a couple of books I’ve had a funeral scene. No one interrupts a priest or rabbi (usually), but a character listening to the talk can have a thought of their own in the middle of the soliloquy.

 I had a lot of fun with the editor’s eulogy in FromNewsprint to Footprints. The deceased was a jerk. Every time a former colleague made a well-crafted, tactful comment, the protagonist (Melanie) had a thought about what the editor was really like.

"A lot of small papers have closed or cut back to one day a week. The News is still at three days, and Hal hired dedicated staff to cover events in our community."
He also fired a lot of them.
"As we move forward to serve the people of South County, everyone at the paper will use the skills Hal taught us."
Except no one else will throw staplers.

Structuring the eulogy that way let me convey some needed information without putting readers to sleep. Plus it gave me a chance to have some fun.

I honed my dialogue-writing skills in several screenwriting classes. The screenplays I wrote weren’t very good, but reading them aloud as I wrote taught me more than any books.

If an author isn’t sure their own reading aloud will provide enough distance to evaluate conversations, they can ask a friend to read, or speak into a recorder and listen. There’s a good chance the characters’ words will take on a life of their own.
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