Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘dialogue’

Apple Paring

 

Writing is the fruit of our labor and, like making a great apple pie, benefits from paring the tasteless bits. I’m not much of a baker but I know something about wordsmithing. I write, I read, I critique. One of my big bugaboos is wading through clumps of words that don’t contribute to story. It happens even in professionally published work but less experienced writers flub more often. First drafts are especially susceptible, resulting in boxcars of useless words. It compares to the yakking of a teenage girl.

Brandy twirled a wisp of her platinum hair. “So, like, I said to, um, him, ‘Like, when should we like do it, like, I mean, I wanna, you know, like, get to know you better before we, like, make a big deal out of this, like, um, you know?’”

Not much said here though it might be great birth control.  An obvious vacancy of thoughtful dialogue so deep you’re rolling your eyes. Me too. But there’s a lesson here in how to tell when to excise surplus keystrokes. In short, how to make your book pound instead of dribble. Unless Brandy is an important character in your book, kill this baby. If she’s a person you just gotta have in your community, limit her vocalization to a paragraph no longer than the one above, and sprinkle the book with as few, but glinting, examples as possible. Readers will get the picture as soon as she bedazzles the page.

Dialogue is a challenge. We want our stories to be peopled with folks who sound like they’ve been raised on a dairy farm in Minnesota. “Ispoze ya dint bring in da meelk, deedja?” Or work in a Piggly Wiggly in Alabama. “I mi-aght could carry yo’all the can o’ beans but I don’t got a mi-and to do tha-et juss yet.” The strength of these examples is the trope and accents that pinpoint Minnesotan and Alabaman culture, imparting richness to the human landscape of your story.

Even in ordinary speech, a writer must limit words to propel the action of the story while still saying everything essential. Where to pare demands editing skill. Here’s a simplistic example of editing to improve content.

First take: It’s also the thing that makes me scared. The sentence drags with word stuffing.

Second take: It’s also what makes me scared. Pared down, still bursting with fluff.

Third take: It also makes me scared. Getting there.

Fourth take: It scares me. Now it’s powerful.

I often encounter vacuous dialogue when reviewing the unpublished work from my critique group. It’s the function of our members to help fellow writers build the suspense and insight that create good story, so even if my book is not being critiqued, I learn much from listening to the assessments about other works. Recently we read a chapter from a book long been in the WIP stage, the writer struggling but determined. Interestingly, even the newer members grasped the essential problem with the story. I’ve disguised the following section.

 

Ernie dialed his son. “Hello, son, this is your dad.”

“Hey, dad, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine, son, how are you?”

“Oh I’m OK. Getting ready to move in to the new place.”

“That’s good. Did you get the package I sent?”

“Yeah, that was nice.”

The cat jumped onto the table. Ernie scratched her neck as she rubbed his arm. “Well, got to run. I’ll talk to you again later.”

“OK, bye, dad.”

 

The son is being released from prison. His father hasn’t seen him in a year. The book attempts to ascertain where the young man’s life went so wrong. It hints at the lack of substantial connection between father and son and the ineffective parenting that let him drift away from a promising life into criminal conduct. But the story beats around the real drama between parent and son and presents empty dialogue in place of true insight. It could have been a scene exposing the conflict between the two and the chasm into which the son fell. Following is an imaginary rewrite.

 

Ernie pinched the bridge of his nose while dialing his son.  He heard the irritation in Brett’s voice as soon as he answered.

“What’s up, dad? I’m awful busy, trying to get settled in my new place.”

“Sure, son, that’s why I sent a few things to help you out.”

“Really, a pack of socks? You think that’ll do it?”

Ernie had been hoping for a gracious thank you, but this was so typical of his kid. He tried to find an acceptable response that wouldn’t raise Brett’s ire, but the boy rushed into his next complaint.

“Ever think you could send me some cash so I can buy what I want? Or maybe put in a word with that buddy of yours at the auto shop and help get me a job?”

“He doesn’t know about you getting out…”

“Course not, none of your buddies know I been in the joint. You never talk about me, do you? Less you make up crap about how I’m away at school or whatever shit you say.”

Ernie’s jaw ached, the pain shooting up to explode the top of his head. “I’ll send some money in the next letter. How you feeling now, being out of there?”

“Out of the joint, dad, out of prison. Why can’t you say it?”

Brett was right. Ernie couldn’t face that he was out of prison because he couldn’t face he’d been incarcerated in the first place. He had no strength to talk about his boy’s actions that led to criminal behavior. “I care about…”

“Sure you do, dad, talk to you later.”

His son’s slammed phone cranked the pain in Ernie’s head no matter how gently he put down the receiver. He knew nothing about his boy.

 

The passage is longer, but it illustrates the friction between father and son. I shouldn’t rewrite someone else’s story, but I wanted to suggest how drivel can be turned into drama. Apple fruit, not parings.

Paring apples is perfect summer activity. Sharpen your knife and get to work.

 

 

 

Image courtesy Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You Don’t Talk So Good

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“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with  a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for my supervisor.”) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to lasso is the perfect elocution of the English professor. Formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat, finger pointing in the kid’s face.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – It ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it’ll be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hot spots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that produced them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched. Even the ugly ones.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in our writing is to say less, implant a red herring, or imply more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented example you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping even if readers think I talk funny, they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation, to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

I’ll run this idea by my grandson.

 

Painting courtesy Google public domain images: en.wikipedia.org

 

 

Talk Talk

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Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk.

Rant, whisper, inform.

Stutter, harangue, order.

Insult, complain, gossip.

Coo.

Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night.

Talk talk.

If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, the way I say it. “So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know?” Oof, a terrible take. That sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.

Take two. “I happened to have encountered both of Nancy’s college children while Sam and I were negotiating the purchase of a new automobile.” Whew, not much better. Other than the queen, who talks like that? Not her either.

My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like someone who can’t grab a mouthful of articulate thoughts out of a spoon or it sounds formal, as if pretentious phrasing had been a college class aced by my characters. No one understands anything said by Spoon Girl while College Pretender talks about everything without saying a word. The delete button was invented for prevention of dialogue meltdowns and failures.

As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop on people around me, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can export to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses, the little white lies gather, and motive becomes apparent.

Read great literature to discover brilliant conversation. A character pulls the mask over his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.

 

[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

 

[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]

 

The dialogue is simply stated, but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.

Applying everything I know academically about dialogue demands a moon’s orbit of time, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck hauled to the scrap heap. In my second novel, two teenage girls park on a hill and wring their hearts out in a chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. Each girl learns that words can only tell part of their stories, given that the meaning of words assumed to be mutually clear is stymied by naiveté or enriched by experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up sobbing. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.

Often it’s not what’s spoken but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires a writer to trust readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent, but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can usefully describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience intuits her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue. It’s hard to find a better mentor.

My most recent WIP takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers. A great deal of the story involves dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or nonsensical, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior – pointing, wandering, laughing. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by scenes where the dialogue is muddled but the intentions transparent. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.

I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth.

Talk talk, just say something worth reading.

 

Conversation image courtesy: comicbookplus.com, public domain images

Such a Voice as That!

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If you’ve ever heard my mom sing, you’d recognize her voice every time she blats out a song. It’s that unique. She brays, she’s loud, off key, flat, out of tune. Even the resonance of the shower stall does not improve her voice, and singing lessons would be about as useful as a water filter in the middle of the Sahara. Mom sings with gusto, like she can’t wait to get the words scraped out of the back of her throat and into the vacuum around her. Yet despite the fact that Mom has an absolutely awful voice, it’s truly a delightful experience to hear her sing because she exudes such joy of music. She beams, she glows, she bubbles with joie de vivre. Everyone who hears her sing smiles, but no one tells her to shut up because it’s fun to listen to someone create triumph out of singing so poorly.

Mom’s voice is so distinctive that everyone recognizes it. It’s terrible, yes, but distinctive. No one wants to sound like Mom. Except you, Writer, you really do want to sound like Mom. Distinct. You want your reader to grab your book and declare, OMG, it’s another exciting, wonderful book from Storyteller, the writer whose voice sounds like no other! Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

So exactly what is this business of writing voice? You know about the other aspects of writing: plot, conflict, character development, pro- and antagonist, setting, time period, and imperfect heroes. You’ve got down grammar, spelling, sentence construction, dialogue, cliff hangers, and secondary plots. But voice – how do you define writing voice? It’s often linked to dialogue, though as unique as speech may be, Southern drawl, Hawaiian pidgin, or Yiddish inflection, it’s more than the slant of a character’s words. Voice shows up consistently, even without dialogue to drive it forward. It’s what happens when the way the words are slung together engages the reader as much as the suspense or mystery that imbues the story. The author owns voice. (more…)