Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blah, Blah, Blah, Yap, Yap, Yap: Put A Cork In It, or Not?

When you think about writing stories or novels in any genre, the subject of dialogue always arises. For purposes of this discussion, dialogue will include not only conversations between characters, but also characters' thoughts, characters' speeches, statements, etc. Now, I'm not going to get into the importance of dialogue itself, because that should be a given. Characters need to communicate with each other, with the writer, and with the reader, and they need to do it appropriately--i.e., 'within character'. No. The question I'm going to raise here is, when is it time for one's character(s) to just shut the *&#$ up and let the story move forward. Is there ever a point when your characters simply talk too much? Unfortunately, there are times when this is the case.

We all know the importance of our readers getting to know each and every one of our characters. Only then can they share in all their experiences. A character must have a past, a present, hopes, fears, and all that good stuff, and the way a reader learns about them is through dialogue. Yes, descriptions are important--kind of third party type statements like 'Jack grew up in a rough area of the city...', or 'Emilie had always feared wide open spaces...'. All that's fine and dandy, but I believe it's through their own words that a reader can truly know what makes them tick. But, like was said when I was a kid: 'Sometimes it's better to be seen than heard', and this does apply here.

Our characters speak through us, true. However, in a way, we speak through our characters as well. It's a flow thing. No, we're not really serial killers or corrupt cops or monsters in the mist or even heroes who save mankind, but the voices do come from within the writer. Sound nutty? Of course it is. We wouldn't be readable writers if we didn't hear the voices of our characters. What I'm getting at is consider how you write a letter or a postcard. Do you do a 40 pager that requires 18 stamps or obscure the caption on the postcard by writing down, across, and along all the sides (you know, the kind of behavior that causes the postal employees to go postal)? Or do you say only what needs to be said. That is not to say you're notes are rude and uninteresting. Brief and to the point does not have mean boring and hateful. It simply means brief and to the point. That's what our characters need to be.

In order to allow our readers to get inside our characters, they need to talk. They need to talk about how they feel about themselves, their childhood maybe, their deeds (whatever those may be), and they most certainly need to do it in more than two word sentences. The point I'm trying to make here is, make sure you know the difference between sharing perspectives and blabbering like an idiot. You know the type. You begin reading a story, the setting is intriguing and there's an event that occurs in the first chapter that hooks you hard. Then, you move forward and one or more of your characters begins talking. And talking. And talking. And... You get my drift.

They witnessed an event and are making a statement to the police, or something really monumental happened in their life and they're sharing it with a friend. They explain what they've seen or heard and include a few tidbits about their own life in relation to it and pretty much should stop there. But, they do not. They begin describing their teen years and the vacation they took when they were four, and my, my, isn't the sky a lovely shade of blue today, and twelve pages later, they're still droning on. Come on, you know what I'm talking about. Those stories where you stop really reading and start skimming, kind of glancing over the page and noticing the quote marks never seem to end, and you start flipping pages so you can get back to the storyline before you forget what you read on page one. Now, you've done it. You've lost the reader, and I'll guarantee, the next time they see your name on something, they'll think lots of talking, but very little story. I'll think I'll pass. Is that what you want?

We've discussed before the fact that some pieces are strongly event-driven while others are strongly character-driven. Both are fine--they're simply different styles of telling a story. In a character-driven tale though, notice there is much more dialogue and less straight descriptive passages. The characters voices give you the feel for the places and events. Let me give you some examples of really well written character-driven stories where the characters 'know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em'--so to speak.

Jon Loomis' books, High Season and Mating Season are two great examples. Strongly character-driven stories with tons of dialogue, but never is it too much to digest. Places are described, people, feelings, memories, characters interact, and at times, there is what may be considered 'small talk' made, but never does it cross the line into 'oh no, that character's making a speech again'. Dave Zeltserman's Bad Thoughts and Bad Karma are another example. Dialogue is exceptionally critical in the telling of these two stories, and again, the line is never crossed. What needs to be said is said and yes, there's 'regular' dialogue in there that's not specifically related to events but let's us get inside the characters' heads and relationships with each other, but that's okay. It's done well and never overdone.

I don't need to give you examples of the ones where the characters are simply too 'talky', you know what they are because you've read some. We all have. We all also have put them aside after a few chapters of that and never gone back to them. You don't want readers doing that with your stuff, do you? Whether we are chatty cathy's in our own lives is our own cross to bear (and the cross of those around us as well), but don't turn your characters into those annoying people we sometimes get cornered by. You know the ones. You are out and about and you see someone you know and you make the fatal mistake of asking how they are. Four and a half hours later...

I'm going to give you a tip that's a sure-fire way to avoid including meaningless rambling by a character in a story. When you feel you're done with it, put it aside. It doesn't have to be for a specific length of time, but do put it aside. Then, pick it up and read it. But, and here's the kicker, don't read it as a 'writer'. Read it as a 'reader'. You will be amazed at how many times you'll think to yourself, 'no one would really say that' and quite a few 'who cares about that', and you'll edit them out or rework them. You'll identify whose mouth needs a cork stuck in it and whose doesn't.

Oh, and by the way. Next time you're out of town, no postcards please. I have a life...

5 comments:

  1. Good post. Dialogue is tricky. When it's done well-like Al Tucher's recent story at ATON- it can be amazing!

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  2. Thanks, Paul, and I agree about Al's story. It's like 99.99% dialogue and it flows so smoothly and never misses a beat. Which only goes to show, that kind of style can work when it's done right!

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  3. I have always had a problem with dialogue, as both a reader and a writer. Bad dialogue makes me stop reading and awful dialogue in my own writing has caused me to scrap whole story arcs, just to avoid it.
    Thanks for the post and the tips.

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  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Crybbe. Dave Zeltserman offered another tip to me. He suggested envisioning the piece you're writing as a screenplay and 'hear' the dialogue as being spoken by actors. I thought that was really helpful and I'm certainly going to try that one.

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