Thursday, June 9, 2016

Telling it likes of how it is.

I love dialogue. It's the writing I find easiest to do.

Action is much trickier for me. If I use enough words to paint the scene it ends up too slow and if I try to keep up with the scene it's too telegraphic and gets boring. I think that's why good sports writing is so very good.

Description is easier. But since description is much to be resisted if you're hoping to get those pages whipping past, I always know when I'm writing it that I'll probably cut it later anyway. (I'd  love to see a modern editor faced with the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy, where he starts with the geology of the county. Talk about easing into the scene.)

Oh, but dialogue! I enjoy it a bit too much sometimes. Get carried away with what my agent calls the Dinnerladies scenes (after the brilliant ensemble British sitcom, where a clutch of factory canteen workers talk about ab-so-lute-ly nothing until the tears pour down your face from laughing so much.)

To the extent that I can write realistic dialogue, I do it lots of different ways. Three of the most useful are:

Staggering. Instead of each question being answered and each remark acknowledged in order, the conversational balls are tossed and caught in whatever pattern suit the characters' interest and agendas. A lot of clues can be hidden in the gaps and overlaps.

"So how come you didn't see the guy running away? Did you say you did want a coffee?"
'I told you, the street light was out. I couldn't see a thing."
"But you heard him. You must have heard something."
"Black, no sugar. Yeah, I heard him. Did you check the streetlight?"
"Pitch-black. No sugar."

If this is re-ordered to:

"Did you say you did want a coffee?
"Black. No sugar."
"So how come you didn't see the guy running away?"
'I told you, the street light was out. I couldn't see a thing."
"But you heard him. You must have heard something."
"Yeah, I heard him. Did you check the streetlight?"
"Pitch-black. No sugar."

Not only is it pretty dull but's it's much more obvious that the question about checking the street light didn't get answered.

Fragments. No one talks in complete sentences unless they're trying to pick up marks in a Conversational English oral test. It doesn't feel fragmented, though. It feels perfectly natural. Below, the sentences are in pink and the fragments in blue. (sneak peek at work in progress)

I heard about the ruby,’ I began, and she was off.
Oh, it was a sight,’ she said and laid one of her gnarled hands against her breast as though caressing it there. ‘A beautiful sight and a terrible sight. I feared to see the young mistress with all that on her neck, like drops of blood across her shoulders and a puddle of blood above her heart. Like a slit throat, it was. Even before you heard its name you could see it. An unlucky thing. An evil thing.’

It's not exactly a light speech anyway (first draft - that's my excuse) but imagine if all those fragments had the words to make them into sentences. Snore.

Informal grammar. Dialect, spoken style, informality . . . whatever you call it, I'm a big fan. I'm more prone to use speech grammar in writing these days than ever to use written style in speech or dialogue. That's what made it such a facer to see, just the other day, that someone had "corrected" my perfect, working-class, British English verb-form "gave" (in "It must have gave her a laugh.") to the more formal and less rhythmic "given". And in a library book too! The reader who shared the enormity, on Twitter, was just about as disgusted as I was. We agree, @KatWhen and me, that there's a special circle of Hell . . .


Meredith Cole said...

Great tips, Catriona! I can't believe someone corrected your dialogue... Reminds me of a copy editor I worked with who tried to change "their" in my dialogue to "his or her." Grrr...

Catriona McPherson said...

OMG - his or her?

Art Taylor said...

Nice tips here, Catriona—and that reader taking the pen to your book... yikes!

Susan C Shea said...

I read that the plural possessive "their" after a single noun is now working its way into "proper" usage. In formal writing, I still try to avoid it, but in fiction dialogue, I use whatever I think the character would say if they (smile) were talking to me!

RM Greenaway said...

That was an good contrast. The first sample makes me think and engages me, and the second doesn't. Sample 1 is way more fun. I guess the trick is to make dialogue interesting and real without confusing the reader.

Catriona McPherson said...

Singular "they" is further behind on its journey into US formal English than where it stands in UK English. Same with "whom" - much less likely to be used in British English. Someone "corrected" me once when I used "who". It was adorable.

Pete Theodore said...

Thanks for getting me thinking....