Saturday, 10 December 2011

Writing Workshop: Dialling Up Your Dialogue

Allan Douglas at The Write Stuff offers an interesting workshop here on dialogue.

He makes some useful pointers regarding dialogue tags and action, using film as an example of how we can portray emotion through physical mannerisms in our characters:
To learn effective use of these [emotional] cues, read classic works containing emotional encounters or watch good dramatic films with the sound turned off. Study the facial expressions of the actors and take notes of how they signal emotion.
This is a useful workshop, in that it encourages you to think visually as well as in words (something that, as writers, we often fail to do).

As a rule, dialogue tags should be kept to a minimum to facilitate clarity. 'Said' is far less intrusive than 'opined' or 'stammered'. You begin to notice those as they mount up and they make writing look strained.

Another alternative to the dialogue tag is to tag the dialogue with action instead. This has two benefits: it identifies who has spoken but also sneaks in some action, which keeps the momentum of the story going and can be used to develop character as well.

I've been working on this myself. I'm trying to steer clear of using too many dialogue tags in my WIP (the novel-length version of Troglodyte Rose), partly because some of the novel is written in present tense, and when I was re-reading the ms I began cringeing at all the uses of the word 'says'. I don't want to use more conspicuous tags either, so it means I have to work on using action around the dialogue. Here's an example:

'Dahlia!' She looks at me like I'm bleeding all over her doorstep. Which of course I am. I'm the colour and constituency of tallow. With the red threading my appearance, I probably look like the sign outside a barber's shop. Not a hot look this season, kiddies.
'Rose, you look like shit!' Dahlia, to the point, sums it up better. She knew this before she opened the door, of course, because she never opens the damn thing without getting a good look at whoever's on the other side. She probably checked out the tailoring on my jeans with the time she spent peering through beforehand. Never mind that I might be dying out here.
'Care to let me in already, or do you want trogmeat for your new doormat?'
Dahlia grimaces as she lets me in, and checks once again that no one has followed me here. I slide in behind her, close as a shadow, and when she turns she can see the full extent of my injuries up-close. That should teach the bitch to leave a girl standing on the doorstep all afternoon.
'What happened this time?'
'Mercs couldn't play nice, could they?'
'You've gotta watch yourself, Rose, or you're gonna wind up going missing!'
I bristle then. 'Like Flid, you mean?'
She shuts the hell up. Knows I have no time for this. Not raking over raw nerves.
'Sor—'
'It's okay,' I say, interrupting her apology. 'I don't need it or deserve it. Not now, not ever. You're our friend. And Flid . . . per knows what per's doing.'
She nods, takes my hand.
'Come on. We need to get you fixed up.'

This still reads a little clunky to me, but I'm working on it. Elsewhere, I'm really agonising over the word 'ventured'. It's entirely appropriate in the context, but I'm worried it's just too showy.


'I wonder if they’re still alive?' Flid didn't take per eyes off them, enrapt.
I ventured over to the orchid princess—the serpents parting before me as though in obeisance to their slumbering mistresses—and touched her throat. It was warm, but barely. As though she were in the deepest of sleeps. As though her mind swam in dreams of faraway worlds. And I considered that perhaps as we dreamt of her world she dreamt of ours, and her thoughts wandered through cannibal kitchens and slave pits as we explored this derelict palace.
'Maybe she needs a kiss?' ventured Flid.
'From who?' I looked about the room to emphasise that we were alone except for the weeds and the serpents and our own echoes.
'From a handsome prince!' Per face delighted, lighting up like bulbroot, as though this, too, was just a game. And I remembered the drugs. The empty jar of pink Haze. This was just a game. It was.
'Neither of us is a prince,' I said. 'We haven't got a crown to fight over for starters!'
'But I’m the only one with balls.' Flid nudged me playfully with per elbow.
'But they’re only ornamental,' I teased back.

Any thoughts on this would, of course, be appreciated. In the meantime, I think I'll use Allan's workshop as a guide to revisit some of the dialogue in the book.

Try his tips for yourself and see how it improves your dialogue.

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