Working through my fourth draft of Forest of Lies, however, I have been deleting or revising a lot of my dialogue. Most of it has to do with weakness in the dialogue itself. I would place my deletions in three categories:
1. My characters over-address each other. Apparently I like their names so much I had them say each others' names a ton.
2. My characters talk too much--sometimes for four hundred uninterrupted words. Perhaps this is a negative effect from my love of Shakespeare.
3. My characters say too much. I’ve heard, probably from Mr. S., that good dialogue can rely as much on what characters don’t say as what they do say. I’ve learned how true that is from working on Robin’s dialogue (I have changed some of Marian and Much’s dialogue for the same reason, but it’s most striking with Robin).
Robin is a fascinating, complex character that is amazing to work with. However, some of his dialogue still clinging around in draft III, or even written for draft III, is dialogue of discovery. Discovery for me, the author. Basically everything he says is true...either about himself, or his past, or his beliefs. I just now know that he wouldn’t say these things.
Robin’s a very close, private person. He’d rather risk bodily harm than really open up his heart to others. He’s been through a lot of emotional abuse, so he just keeps it locked away. This actually becomes an issue for him later in life. Point being, though, Robin wouldn’t really say this (chapter 7):
“Oh Marian!” he sobbed, “I never told her. I never told her that it was I who murdered her husband, started all her troubles. She told me once that she had forgiven whoever did it, but she would never forget. He--I--laughed to her face when I had finished, and ran off. I never can tell her now, Marian. And I don’t know if I can ever tell her son. The longer I keep it wrapped up inside me, the harder it gets, the more it weighs me down. And yet the harder it becomes to let it out. I never can tell her, now. Never kill someone, Marian,” he looked up, into my face, his eyes brimming with tears again. “Not only does it shove aside one of our Lord’s commandments, it haunts you for the rest of your life. At times, I still see the blood on my hands.”Now, as I said, this is all true. It’s what he really feels. When I wrote it, it helped me in developing his back story. But he wouldn’t really say it. In draft IV, this is how I currently have the same section:
“I never told her,” he said, looking up at me, eyes like deep wounds of brimming blue blood, “I never told her and--now--Timothy...Timothy...”Not only is the entire section shorter (152 to 111 words), but the dialogue shrinks from 138 words to 40 words.
His eyes shone with a strange light, and he looked at his hands, grasping and grasping and grasping at the ground before his knees. When he spoke again, his voice was surprisingly clear. Low and clear, but tinged with violent madness.
“Never kill someone, Marian. Never kill someone. Not only does it shove aside one of our Lord’s commandments, it haunts you for the rest of your life.” He turned one of his hands over, touched it with one finger. “At times...” He shook his head.
This is Robin at his most vulnerable. After this section, Marian sees the “walls in his eyes” go up again. This is her most successful breaching of those walls--and he still doesn’t give her even a quarter of what I used to have him give. A huge chunk of 250 words comes right before the 152 words I shared here, and I cut them all. I’ve shared the most intact part of this section from draft III to draft IV.
People don’t always say what they mean. They don’t say everything they think and feel. Even those that seem like they do (Marian) hold things back. The job of the author is to know both what they say--and what they don’t say.
What’s the hardest part of dialogue for you?