Monday, May 2, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 9: Dialogue and Attribution

Dialogue in fiction will do so much more for your work than you'd think. For starters, I've heard many instructors of writing call dialogue “the dramatic structure” of a novel. I think it's a wonder thing to call it. It's like a mini play embedded in your exposition. Dialogue can put the reader in a specific locale or a specific time. For instance, in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, the dialogue puts us in Cuba with the British vernacular and the Spanish language as well as the Spanglish that happens between. John McManus in Bitter Milk takes us to the rural south with the dialogue in his book. He writes the dialogue in the regional vernacular that I had to sound out occasionally. Anthony Burgess does the same thing in A Clockwork Orange. When properly executed, dialogue places readers in the specific locale and time. Consider that, point one.

Point two: we can learn a great deal about a character and that character's relationships through what they say. We're told that actions speak louder than words, and whereas that might be true in real life, let's consider the opposite in fiction. There must be a context. A character would not say, or perhaps should not say anything that doesn't progress the scene, or the plot in total. As far as interpersonal communications, a specific character may have more than one form of speech. For instance, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me has the dialogue of sheriff and lecherous murderer in one character and it all depends on who that character addresses. Suzanne Moore in In the Cut express the character's relationships through dialogue too: the English teacher, the cop and the street kid. And lastly: Willa Cather's O Pioneers! is similar to Our Man in Havana with multicultural and multilingual speech between characters.

Point three: since dialogue within fiction breaks up descriptive exposition, we'll consider all the old professors who say, show don't tell. Dialogue is a great tool to show.

Any questions?

It's easy to say it: dialogue, use it, it will enhance your writing. But what about writing good dialogue? Well, that takes practice. A few things to consider, reading plays can help with your development of dialogue. Even movies, we've all seen movies where the dialogue seems contrived. We usually blame it on bad acting or bad direction, and that may be true, but it's probably bad writing and let's assign blame where it's due. If you want to write good dialogue, pay attention to good dialogue.

Troubleshooting? My only two ideas here are: a) keep what the characters say very short. In old novels, a character can speak for paragraphs and paragraphs and it doesn't seem like they tire of it. Gogol's Dead Souls is a good example of this. The dialogue becomes soliloquy and soliloquy becomes the narrative. So what's the point of even adding dialogue at all? Keep in mind that human speech patterns are generally more curt, and seldom are they grammatically correct. In a play writing exercise in my days of study under Kyle Bass, he had us write and share mini plays with our group. One of my cohorts had written something very funny about two people in a car and the driver being a bit of a maniac. As I said, it was funny. The banter was two to five sentences each batted back and forth. Kyle then had us read the little piece and this time we read each line to the first period. In short, we took this very funny bit of dialogue and shrank it to one sentence each. What had been funny became brilliant. Kyle Bass is a playwright and a brilliant one at that. Lesson learned? Keep it tight, clean it up. And b) remember that even in life we seldom talk to one another, we talk through one another. This means that when we speak, we do it very economically. In your dialogue, the use of contractions will make things more natural.
Attribution. Simplified: who's speaking? Admittedly I had trouble with this. Again, Kyle Bass had suggestions. And fortunately, I will give his suggestions to you. If you remember my dialogue and attribution post during the short story for the editor, the examples are the same: Raymond Carver's “The Things We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and William Faulkner's “That Evening Sun.” We're going to set aside the craft of dialogue for a minute and just look at the grammatical aspect. Carver's use of “he said, she said” becomes part of the lyrical appeal of the narrative. It's almost hypnotic. Faulkner, likewise, uses the “he said, she said.” Whereas Faulkner's work is not as hypnotic, as readers, we do not have a single question as to who is speaking. In both stories, there are several people talking at one time. Attribution is important. Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky, as I recall, does a great job with the physical aspects of attribution. As you write dialogue, whether you punctuate it in the traditional style or not, do not confuse your readers.

At this stage of your novel, even guerrilla style, I would hope that you have more than one character and that you have employed dialogue. If you have some stylistic concerns, this is a good time to make good on it. Yes, by all means, use your own style, but treat your readers well. We will talk about our readers in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, as always, happy writing.

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