Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Good Dialogue: What Characters Say...and What They Don't

Dialogue is the easiest part of writing for me. People have often complimented me on my dialogue, so I have in general toted it as my strength (with detail being my definite weakness).

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...”
    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.
Not only is the entire section shorter (152 to 111 words), but the dialogue shrinks from 138 words to 40 words.

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?


Godsgirl said...

Oh, I love when you post little bits of FoL!!! :D

I think the hardest part of dialog for me is the same as yours - them saying too much.

Anonymous said...

This was a very fascinating post! I'm really close to writing a rough draft and I appreciate having these general concepts in the back of my head (at least for later editing. :D) I've never thought about issues in my dialogue....makes we want to go look now.



Farjag said...

When you are able to tell the reader what the speaker is *doing* as he is *speaking,* then so much need no longer be said. That's something I only learned after *cough* years of writing.

But I still have problems keeping the dialogue up. I.e. conversation. My longest conversations tend to go in largely different directions than I was planning, which is especially annoying when there's something important supposed to come out the other end. :)
Which is something, I must say, you do excellently. Banter, back and forth, etc. You're definitely a master of that. :)

Oh, and I love the excerpts! I can improvement is palpable. :D Keep up the good work!

Cait said...

My hardest struggle with dialogue is definately getting more than 2 characters talking. Getting 3 (or more!) into the discussion messes me around so much...

I really think this is an excellent post! Really! I read it and I'm nodding and agreeing the whole way. Your revised excerpt is brilliant! It's so much more "full", even when you don't say as much, eh?!?

So love reading your blog...!! :)

Nairam said...

@Godsgirl: I'm glad you do! I'm always worried about it seeming pompous or something, but I thought it was the best way to show what I'd discovered during this process...

@Pippin: You're welcome! I hope it helps. Don't every try to worry too much about _anything_ in the rough draft, though. My rough draft had some horrendous pieces of dialogue, but it wasn't the important part at that moment. Developing the story and characters was.

@Farjag: My conversations don't always go the way I want them to either. In fact, characters have thrown me for a loop a couple of times in this draft because I'm adding new scenes and they say stuff I don't expect. (You'd think after 3 years I'd expect everything by now...) It's not always a bad thing!

Oh, and thank you. :)

@Cait: Really? That's interesting. I often have characters in three-way conversations, though I have heard that sometimes their voices start to blend and sound the same, so it's probably something I could work on as well.

It's amazing how much stuff improves when less is revealed. Dialogue and otherwise.

I'm glad you are! :)

Sarah Faulkner said...

Great post, Nairam! I find myself constantly failing in the dialog department.
And . . . congratulations! You've been awarded The Booker Award. You can see the details here:


Abigail Bunting said...

Hmm..I have the opposite problem. I'm great at detailed description, but have a hard time writing dialogue. In fact, I have a very cocky mc at the moment(the opposite of my real personality) and sometimes find his dialogue changes from self-confident to outright obnoxiousness at times. I actually have to get all into character, like I'm playing my character in a play, and ask, "What would he/she really say in this situation?" I have to repeat this with all my characters, otherwise the dialogue just sounds too forced.

Nairam said...

@Abigail: I still have to do that sometimes, and dialogue flows more naturally for me.

All the same, I'm probably envious of your detail skills...

Nairam said...

@Sarah: Oh, thank you!

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