So… shall we talk?
Hi, I’m Kelly Hunter and I’ll be doing plenty of talking about dialogue and subtext at the upcoming Far North Queensland Roadshow. Right now my mission is to tempt people into a discussion about dialogue, what it can do, and how best to wield it. Being an opportunist (and dead scared of sitting in an empty room asking questions and having to answer them myself – that’s called soliloquy, btw, not madness), I’ve enlisted fellow Roadshow presenters Barbara Hannay, Helene Young and Anne Gracie to answer a few dialogue related questions. Anyone can have at these questions, mind. Just use the comments section.
1. Which comes more easily to you, dialogue or narrative?
Anne: When I’m writing a scene I usually write the dialogue first. I’ll rewrite and prune and trim and tweak that until I’m satisfied it’s going where I want it to go.
Then I think about what I want the scene to do/show/raise, and I go back and “choreograph” it — ie add actions, weave in setting, add in thoughts etc. I try to add things that the dialogue doesn’t tell us, and to help the reader to “see” the scene.
Kelly: Dialogue. Always the dialogue, although sometimes at the very start of a story idea I might free write my way into a scene by describing the setting in detail. This rarely makes the final cut.
Barbara: I find dialogue easier. I sketch out the bare bones of the dialogue first – this way I get to the heart of the scene. Then I go back and add layers – scenery, sensual imagery, emotional reactions, asides, thoughts etc.
Transition scenes are often hard, but for me they come easiest if I jump straight in with dialogue. Having said that, I’ve rarely begun a book with dialogue although I enjoy this in other people’s writing.
Helene: I’m more likely to start a scene with action so narrative comes first for me and then once it’s in place the dialogue flows more easily. If I start a scene with dialogue then I’ll usually write and then remove the action that precedes it.
2. Favourite dialogue tag?
Anne: It depends. No tag if I can help it. An action tag if it’s appropriate. S/he said if I need to make it clear who’s talking and don’t want to interrupt the flow. Said and an adverb if I need the adverb to cut things short and keep the dialogue moving.
Kelly: s/he said. In general, I want readers to pay attention to the dialogue, not the tags. I want those tags as plain as can be or not there at all.
Barbara: I’ve used increasingly fewer dialogue tags. But sometimes the dialogue becomes too staccato without the occasional tag, so rhythm is important. It all depends on the mood you’re trying to develop. I mostly stick with ‘said’, but have a fondness for ‘murmured’ in the right place.
Helene: With scenes where there are multiple characters involved then the simpler the better. I do use action tags, although I learnt the hard way not to overuse the same ones. If Morgan had ‘flicked her hair’ one more time I think my editor would have taken a pair of clippers to my character and given her short back and sides!
3. Least favourite dialogue tag?
Anne: No least fave tag, really — but I try to avoid the old find “a better word than said” that teachers were so fond of. That’s fine for developing vocabulary, not for writing.
Kelly: s/he grated (grated what? The cheese?). The romance genre has a rich and often misunderstood history of using coded language, and by that I mean words that don’t just resonate with subtext from your story but words that carry with them a meaning derived from a lifetime of reading romance novels. I know that ‘he grated’ is often shorthand for ‘our sorely put upon hero is getting somewhat testy and if our heroine continues to bait him there will be consequences’. I understand this shorthand. I do. Pre-coded language brings with it pre-loaded subtext and who doesn’t love subtext? But I still go looking for the cheese.
Barbara: I’m currently reading a very well written book that uses lots of interesting tags. They do grab my attention, but I’m enjoying them, because the story’s so good.
Helene: Nothing that jumps out at me…
4.What does dialogue do best? (reveal character, further plot, lets the subtext flow, enhance emotional impact, convey information to the reader…)
Anne: I think it’s the quickest way into a reader’s imagination. The give and take of dialogue, whether it’s banter or a heated argument, gives us the real spark of romance.
Kelly: For me, dialogue deepens characterisation, and good characterisation engages readers.
Barbara: Dialogue can do all of the above, but mostly it reveals character. I tend to think writing fiction is a lot like acting. Many writers I know have been actors at some stage in their lives, either amateur or professional. We take on the roles of our characters and get inside their heads and when the writing’s going well, we almost “channel” their voices.
Helene: I think Barb’s spot on and I certainly act out my characters in my head as I’m writing so I think characterisation is the first thing dialogue brings. (I have an unfortunate habit of screwing my face up into the emotion being delivered in the dialogue when I’m writing which must be disconcerting for anyone near me…) Dialogue also heightens emotional impact.
Give us an example from your work.
Anne: From The Perfect Rake – (a historical) – the hero and heroine are speaking:
Gideon cast a quick furtive glance around the room.
“What is it?” Prudence said anxiously.
“Just checking to see if anyone would notice if I kissed you now.”
She took a step backward. “Don’t you dare do such a thing! You said you’d stop teasing me! We agreed to be friends!”
He gave her an injured look. “I was thinking of a very friendly kiss.”
Kelly: From The Man She Loves To Hate – the hero and heroine are speaking:
“Ask me what I dream of, Jolie.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
Wary, and so she should be given the chaos she caused in him. Cole stepped in close and let his lips brush the hair at her temple. “Thank you for the invitation to the wake. I’d like to attend. Thank you for coming over to speak to me, even if civility’s a stretch. And just for the record, when I close my eyes at night I think of greedy lips and silken skin and passion the likes of which I’ve never felt before. Ask me where I go each night, Jolie.”
“Where?” she whispered and it was a supplicant’s murmur and it magnified the heat deep inside him a hundred fold.
“I come to you.”
Barbara: From The Cattleman’s English Rose… the outback hero feels inadequate because he can’t express the true depth of his feelings in words…
‘That’s not fair, woman. I’m trying to be earnest and sincere.’
‘So am I.’
‘You’re being sincerely seductive.’
‘Yes. Is it working?’
He pulled her close. ‘Damn right it is.’ He kissed her neck just below her ear.
‘Mmm… I’ll accept kisses instead of words.’
‘Maybe kisses can be words,’ he murmured as he kissed her throat…
‘Are they like welcoming winking eyes when you see them out at sea?’ Lauren asked.
He nodded, understanding her meaning. ‘Every lighthouse, every marker buoy reminds me there’s safe harbour if your know where to look. You just have to understand the marks and symbols.
‘Yep. Sometimes those symbols get misinterpreted.’
‘And then there’s danger. Shipwrecks.’
‘Or misguided judgements.’ He looked for the right words. ‘And misguided lectures.’
‘Right.’ He saw the ghost of a smile flit across her face as she spoke. ‘Or imaginary girlfriends.’
The temptation was too strong…
5. What does dialogue not do well?
Anne: Explain things that the writer thinks the reader needs to know but which results in stagey, unnatural speeches like, “My husband, the world-famous surgeon who can tap-dance and is allergic to cats will be coming by shortly to pick me up.”
Barbara: Unless your character is Miss Marple. 🙂
Kelly: The weather report. ‘Hi. Nice day, isn’t it?’ is a fine and useful greeting for when you’re down the street, but don’t use it in your novel unless it’s turbo loaded with subtext or irony (ie. it’s hailing golf balls and the heroine has just lost her job, her glasses, driven over the letterbox (or the hero) and forgotten to get the milk, so what on earth does the hero – who knows all this – mean when he says ‘Good day at the office, then?’ What does it say about him? And what does her response then say about her and their relationship?). That’s the only way you’re going to get me interested in an on page chat about the current status of the sky. Although, maybe if there’s a cyclone brewing…
Helene: I call them infomercials. Writing books that have a technical component with flying it’s tempting to use dialogue to explain some of the complexities but then it ends up sounding like a mini-lecture that is guaranteed to bore the reader… It’s something I still grapple with, but reading passages of dialogue aloud normally irons out the stilted language.
Thanks for stopping by and chatting dialogue with us.
And for those of you coming to the FNQ Roadshow… we’re plotting and planning, refining those teaching notes and looking forward to meeting you all.
Helene, Barbara, Anne and Kelly