I have a few things on my blogging agenda this week. First off (as you might guess from the graphic) I have another release this week, and I want to publicize it. The Sorcerers’ Plague, book I of Blood of the Southlands (the prequel to The Horsemen’s Gambit, which came out a couple of weeks ago) is being released in paperback on Tuesday. So if you’ve been interested in the Southlands series, but have been waiting for the first book to be released in paperback, your time has come! And if you’d like to read a few chapters of the book first, please feel free to visit my website: www.DavidBCoe.com.
Second, I’d like to commend Faith and the MagicalWords readers who contributed to her wonderful online character workshop last week. It was enormously interesting and great fun for those of us who were “watching” from the sidelines. Thanks to all who were willing to share their characters with the rest of us, and many, many thanks to Faith, who put in so much time and effort on her critiques. Well done, all!
Over the last year and more, we at MagicalWords have covered a great variety of topics relating to the craft and business of writing. There is no way that we can avoid repeating some of these topics, and we really have no intention of trying — each new discussion will reveal new insights. So today I would like revisit something we’ve discussed before: Dialog.
I’m thinking about dialog a lot right now, because as I write my new book I’m noticing that I do a lot of my narrative work, my character development, even my worldbuilding, through conversation and character reactions to things other people say. This doesn’t mean that I never get away from dialog, that I don’t spend some narrative time inside my character’s mind. But a good deal of my storytelling is accomplished by having my character interact with others.
I like to write this way because I find that dialog accomplishes several things at once. First off, it facilitates character development. We reveal a lot about ourselves when we speak to others, just as we learn a lot about people when we listen to them, when we watch their facial expressions as they speak and as they react to the things we say. It’s a “show vs. tell” thing: Introducing characters through their words and actions allows us as writers to convey a great deal about the people in our books without having to stop and describe them. Here’s an example from The Horsemen’s Gambit, a tiny snippet from the first chapter that introduces us to two characters — Tirnya Onjaef, our POV character, and Enly Tolm. The only thing you really need to know about the scene is that these two are about to fight each other in a sword tournament:
They met in the center of the ring, turned to face the center box, and bowed to Maisaak.
“They’d cheer more for me if you were uglier,” Enly said under his breath. “You know that don’t you?”
“They’d cheer more for you if you weren’t such an ass,” she answered in a whisper.
“Well, that’s obvious.”
She couldn’t help but giggle.
“But I was speaking of you,” he went on, still not looking at her. “You look beautiful today, your cheeks still flushed from your last battle, your hair tied back the way I like it. Just lovely.”
“Shut up,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing more.
I tell you nothing about either of them, but you can discern much just from what you read here. You know that he’s pompous, confident, playful. You know that she’s more serious than he, but that she has trouble resisting his charm. You might even glean that they have a romantic history. Dialog lets you do that; it gives you the chance to say a tremendous amount more than the words being spoken. It lessens the distance between your characters and your readers and truly lets the characters introduce themselves.
Dialog is also a great medium for advancing plot. Just as character development flows from conversation, so does narrative development. We as authors can tell our readers what is happening at any given point in a book, or we can show them by allowing the readers to eavesdrop on a conversation that is central to the storyline. There are certainly times when we have to explain things to our readers, when there’s information that they have to have, that characters can’t tell them without the necessary conversation sounding contrived. But most of the time, I prefer to have my characters talk about matters, even if they are speaking of things my reader can only partially understand. Yes, this can confuse the reader a bit, but it’s a good kind of confusion that keeps readers turning the page. I make certain that no part of the discussion is so opaque that the reader can’t grasp the important points. But if there are details that need to be filled in later, so be it. So long as the readers get the gist — so long as they understand the broad outlines of the threat or dilemma in question, that’s good enough for that particular moment. Another example, this one from The Sorcerers’ Plague. In this case, our POV character is Torgan Plye, a successful merchant. He is trading baskets, and is beginning to suspect that these baskets might be cursed, though he is far from certain of this.
“How much for these, Torgan?” one of the peddlers asked, lifting one and examining it closely. He didn’t know the man’s name, though clearly the stranger knew his. He was a younger man. Eandi. “Mettai work, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mettai,” Torgan said. “And they’re three sovereigns.”
The man’s eyebrows went up. “Three?”
“Firm price,” Torgan added. “No bargaining on those.”
“But three,” the man said.
“Look at them. If you can show me any baskets that are finer, I’ll let you have it for two.”
“I thought you said the price was firm.”
He grinned. “I did. That’s my point.”
The other merchants laughed. He even drew grins from a few of the Fal’Borna.
“Where did you find them?”
“Back in the Neck.”
“What?” the man said.
Everyone stared at him, their expressions turning his innards to water.
“Is that supposed to be funny, dark-eye?” one of the Qirsi asked, his voice hard.
“Not at all,” Torgan managed to say, though abruptly his mouth was so dry that he could barely move his tongue. “What’s happened?”
You truly don’t know?” another peddler asked.
How could he answer? He had seen fire and smoke. But what did he know? What had he seen that night?
We get a bit here about Torgan — his brash confidence, his ability to “work the room.” We also get something of the racial tensions that plague the land — the interaction between Eandi and Qirsi — with the reference to the humorlessness of the Fal’Borna, and the use of the epithet “dark-eye.” But mostly, through the abrupt change in the scene’s mood, what we get is a sense of the seriousness of events in C’Bijor’s Neck. We don’t know yet what’s happened, but clearly it’s a huge deal to all concerned. I could have told my readers that, but by having them listen in on what begins as an innocent negotiation over baskets, I convey it in a way that I believe is more powerful.
Dialog, I would argue, also speeds a book along. As a reader, I know that I find conversations fun to read. I love the interplay between characters, the subtle revelations that come from a change in the tone of a person’s voice or a physical response to something said. And I find, again as a reader, that I glide through dialog more than I do through long passages of exposition. Again, this isn’t to say that descriptive and/or introspective sections aren’t important and necessary. But quite often I find that I can accomplish the same thing with a scene between characters, and can get across necessary information in a way that speeds up the book rather than slowing it down.
So how do we write good dialog? First off, we remember that there is far more to a conversation than just the words we say. There are pauses, facial reactions, physical reactions, changes in tone of voice, changes in the dynamics of voice. Each one of these things clues us in to the emotions of the speaker and the listener. That doesn’t mean that every line deserves a reaction — that would be overkill. But it does mean that you have to give your readers indications along the way regarding what your characters are feeling, how they’re receiving what’s being said.
We also have to keep in mind point of view issues. Most authors these days do not jump back and forth between character pov during a conversation. So when you’re dealing with facial expressions and such, you have one character perceiving those things and responding to what the other character is saying. Just as in real life. When you speak to your love, or your child, or your parent, you know what you want to convey through your words and your tone and your expressions. And then you try to gauge how the conversation is going by looking for visual signs, listening for aural signs from the other person. So it should be with your pov character. Most of the time, you should stay inside the head of one character.
And finally, in today’s market, you should avoid what are known as “said bookisms”. These are words that are used in dialog attribution that (for want of a better word) editorialize. For instance, if your character is angry, have her use harsh words, have her face redden, have her fists clench. But don’t use phrases like “she spat” or “she raged” or “she hissed” to convey that anger. Those are said-bookisms, and they’re frowned upon right now. (They were used far more several decades back, and they may return, but if you’re trying to get published you don’t want to be a trendsetter in this regard…) The point is, let your characters show their emotions, don’t use attribution phrases to tell your reader what the character is feeling
This post is getting very long, and we can handle more dialog issues in comments and also next week if it seems warranted. But I would urge all of you to try a simple exercise that will carry your dialog in a new direction. Try writing a scene between two characters and use no direct attribution at all. No “He said,” “she asked,” etc. Use only stage direction — shrugs, nods, changes in facial expression — to indicate whose speaking. You’ll even find that for parts of the conversation you won’t need to do anything more than quote the person. If you feel so inclined, post your passages in the comments section for the rest of us to see and discuss.
Good luck with it!David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://magicalwords.net http://www.davidbcoe.com