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"It's Dialogue Day," he jabbered.

OK, youse.

It’s Dialogue Day – based on your submissions to Townhouse. I realise, already, that I’m going to have to write a little dialogue mini-series based on the submissions I’ve received, so we’ll be on dialogue next week for sure, and quite likely the week after too. So if your submission isn’t picked this week, I may be able to pick it up later.

Oh yes, and no housekeeping to announce this week except that some of you will get next week’s Friday email on a Thursday. Which will be like opening your Christmas presents in November, but there it is. It’s a strange world.

Right. Dialogue. Here goes …

 

JJ Barrett / Triangle of Time
Stefan is reliving the same life over and over again and must convince PJ of that fact…

A quizzical expression appeared on his face as he refolded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. ‘That was quite accurate, up to half-way.’

‘We’ll discuss that shortly. You know the game Paper, Scissors, Rock?’ 

PJ nodded. ‘An open hand is paper, two extended fingers are scissors, a fist is a rock. Scissors cuts paper and wins, paper wraps rock and wins, rock smashes scissors and wins. Why?’

Stefan held out his right hand. PJ mirrored his action. 

‘On the count of three,’ Stefan said.

Their eyes were locked together. From afar it would have appeared as if the pair were about to fight, such was the intensity in their faces.

Stefan counted slowly, his half open hand rising and falling in time with the count. PJ followed like a shadow. ‘One… Two… Three.’

Stefan didn’t need to look. He knew they both selected scissors. 

‘Again,’ he said. ‘One… Two… Three.’ This time both Rock.

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors again.

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors for a third time.

Two more attempts and both times PJ and Stefan selected Scissors.

PJ was looking extremely uncomfortable by now.

‘Last one PJ. One… Two… Three.’ This time they both chose paper.

My comments:

This is slicker than it might first appear. The dialogue itself looks fairly ordinary – there are quite a lot of ‘one, two, three’s, for example – but dialogue is actually made up of multiple elements, not just the actual speech. That medley of ingredients includes:

  • Speech itself
  • Speech markers (he said, she answered, and so on.)
  • Observations of emotional reaction
  • Snippets of action
  • Physical description

Here, the writer – JJB, I’ll call him or her – has thrown these things together with great deftness and terrific economy. Here’s the passage again, with my comments.

A quizzical expression appeared on his face [very succinct way to note a feeling. I don’t like “expression appeared on his face”, mind you, because I don’t know where else an expression could appear] as he refolded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. ‘That was quite accurate, up to half-way.’

[Little dab of intrigue. Why quite accurate? Why half-way? The reader’s interested.]

‘We’ll discuss that shortly. You know the game Paper, Scissors, Rock?’

[Brilliant refusal to engage. There’s an interesting question hanging – and the speaker immediately moves away from it. That hanging question therefore gives us a reason to read on. It also feels like a very peculiar subject to move on to – which is also intriguing.]

PJ nodded. ‘An open hand is paper, two extended fingers are scissors, a fist is a rock. Scissors cuts paper and wins, paper wraps rock and wins, rock smashes scissors and wins. Why?’

[Here, I think the writer is concerned that the reader doesn’t know what Paper/Scissors/Rock is, and gives a brilliantly compact explanation – try explaining the game in fewer words than that. It’s as though the reader knows the explanation is basically necessary-but-boring, so is trying to move on as quickly as possible. I’d have the same worry as JJB, but I’d probably reckon that enough readers knew the game that I didn’t have to worry. But this feels like a way to engage with the issue, no matter what.]

Stefan held out his right hand. PJ mirrored his action. 

‘On the count of three,’ Stefan said.

[Again, very compact. The author wants to move us into the action and the game as fast as possible …]

Their eyes were locked together. From afar it would have appeared as if the pair were about to fight, such was the intensity in their faces.

[And of course the emotion! I’ve written elsewhere about how one of the easiest tricks in fiction is just making your characters really care about whatever it is you want the reader to care about. In my case, that means getting my detective character to really, really love murder investigations. Here, we, the reader, are really going to care about what happens in the game, because the players obviously do – they look like they’re about to fight, for heaven’s sake! The fact that that emotion is suppressed and silent is actually more powerful. It makes the bland ‘one, two, three’s that follow all the more powerful. And the way the author (unshowily) moves in and out of dialogue, transitioning easily between dialogue / emotion / physical action, is all very deft.]

Stefan counted slowly, his half open hand rising and falling in time with the count. PJ followed like a shadow. ‘One… Two… Three.’

["Followed like a shadow" is good. It echoes the ‘eyes were locked together’ in the previous para. In some metaphorical way the two young men have been joined here – and the reader is joined in with them too. We’re bound in to whatever happens here.]

Stefan didn’t need to look. He knew they both selected scissors. 

[More good stuff – unshowy, but good. The obvious thing would be to have shown them both choosing scissors. But that’s not the interesting thing here. The interesting thing is that Stefan knew they would choose scissors, so that’s where the author focuses our attention.]

‘Again,’ he said. ‘One… Two… Three.’ This time both Rock.

[So simple. But so compact. The utter economy of description is impressive. I’m an economical author too, and I love this!]

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors again.

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors for a third time.

[Double ditto.]

Two more attempts and both times PJ and Stefan selected Scissors.

PJ was looking extremely uncomfortable by now.

[Marker of an emotional change that has happened through the course of this oddly static action. Nice.]

‘Last one PJ. One… Two… Three.’ This time they both chose paper.

Verdict:

The dialogue itself is almost painfully simple but the movement between the different elements of the scene gives that dialogue real weight and hypnotic force. That force is made greater by all those little touches – the two men as mirrors of each other, their intensity, the little dab of intrigue at the start, the way that intrigue is swiftly discarded. None of those things amounts to much on its own but, cumulatively, this reads to me like proper professional text. There are plenty of published novels that aren’t as well-handled as this.

 

Karen Hough / no title
Cate is 29 and deciding to be more responsible. Here she is with her financial advisor.

He pulled up the Canadian Tire website and pointed out two coffee makers. One brewed coffee, one had all the bells and whistles and ground the beans, made cappuccinos and americanos and other frothy things. It was $800.

[Minor points, but you’re contrasting two machines there and only giving the price for one. I think we need both. And an americano isn’t frothy. You need to use a different coffee-type there, or change ‘frothy’. But it’s basically a nice clean opening to the scene.]

“That’s crazy. I can’t afford that,” I said. 

He pulled up a calculator. “Your $3 latte—” his eyes flicked to mine. I made a “higher” motion with my thumb. I tend to get a large. “We’ll stick with a small for our purposes,” he continued. “Add in two new travel mugs, a bag of beans every month, and some fancy syrup—”

“And whipping cream,” I added helpfully. Another reason that I work out a lot.

“…and whipping cream, and a dusting of cinnamon and chocolate shavings.” He was obviously the sort of man that took his coffee black and looked down on the rest of us. “And you will still have paid the whole thing off in less than a year.”

“So you’re telling me to buy it?” I asked.

“I’m telling you that you are spending more than $1000 a year on coffee. If you’re getting a large—”

“Grande,” I corrected him.

He looked pained. “If you’re getting a large cappuccino every day, you are spending upwards of $1500.”

My comments:

Again, this is mostly neat and slick. I like the way the scene neatly avoids dialogue in places where that dialogue would just be dull. So, he “pointed out two coffee makers”. Presumably, he did that by saying something, but actually noting what he said would have been dull, so Karen just reports, compactly, that he pointed them out. That keeps focus on what the reader will be interested in, and avoids the dull stuff.

Nowhere does it say that if you write a page of dialogue, you have to report every word that’s said. Really smart authors often jump from direct speech (the stuff in inverted commas) to reported speech (eg, “he pointed out …”). That way you get the live, mobile feel of dialogue with all the boring bits trimmed.

On the same theme, I like the way the conversation flits from oral (“Your $3 latte”) – to eyes flicking – to a movement of the thumb – to an observation from the first-person narrator about herself – and back to speech again. That’s so swift – it’s just two lines – but it accomplishes so much. The bit of self-observation, in this context, isn’t quite a joke but it’s a flicker of self-awareness that feels close to humour. It’s definitely part of what gives this dialogue a mobile, unpredictable surface.

And then the conversation slides apparently sideways into a conversation about chocolate shavings and the narrator’s comment about working out … before ramming back to what appears to be a purely financial conversation … except then she corrects his ‘large’ to ‘grande’ and his eyes rebuke her for the pretension.

Yes, all this is a conversation about finance, but it’s also a conversation about personalities and values. It’s a conversation about her. The iron rod of “you spend too much on coffee” is just a line from which any number of other curlicues and detours can be drawn.

It’s a very good example of the mobility of good dialogue – the way you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. And also the way it forces the reader to pay close attention. This is real show-don’t-tell stuff. You’re forcing the reader to pay close attention to the emotional movements of the  scene, because you’re not telling the reader what’s happening, you’re making them figure it out for themselves.

Another passage that feels very proficient, really confident. Again, this feels like publication standard material. Bravo.

***

That’s it from me. More on dialogue next week. Sorry I couldn’t fit in more passages this week, but in my defence this email is 2000 words long already.

Go well, my friends. I’m off to buy a $2,000 coffee machine. I shall pay for it with a selection of hand-curled commas and a few unneeded exclamation marks.

If you want to add your dialogue snippet for review, just add it to the original thread on Townhouse here. Do just remember that by uploading your snippet, you may get your work seen by tens of thousands of people and, ultimately, it might appear in a book-form collection of these emails. There'll probably be a TV show and a parade as well. So: don't put your head above the parapet, unless you want it there. More on all this next week.

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Comments (3)
  • That's some good analysis, Harry. It all makes sense.

    The examples of weaving non-verbal dialogue into the conversation are excellent - though a sample where the conversation is more meaningful, weightier, would definitely be appreaciated.

    The detail I will call out as a result of your examples, though, is one that I have encountered in many examples of writing quality. It's a detail that causes most of those examples to fail; the good news here is that the way you've deconstructed the coffee example makes it so very obvious.

    The coffee conversation has, per your dissection, a huge amount of subtext. It is not a conversation about coffee. Nor, even, about coffee machines. It is about self-image.

    The problem I identify with that is that I do not identify with it. The subtext you point us to - while I can appreciate it as pointed out - does not speak to me. I lack the context to ever see it on my own.

    And that is the fundamental issue with such analysis. It assumes that everyone else shares your perspective, your contextual evaluation.

    The truth is that they do not. (If they did, it would no longer be context; by definition, context must be fluid.)

    So… for next week, can you provide such an analysis that works without your personal contextual filters? Can you analyse a snippet of conversation that has objective subtext? That everyone could relate to… Does such a thing even exist?

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    • Not specifically disagreeing with Rick, but it's interesting to ask whether we really do need to know about the subtext. Being English but not liking much English literature, I've spent my life reading books I don't understand. Even if I do read something English, if it's at all historical it will have references I don't catch. What's curious, and fun, is the extent to which that usually doesn't matter. In good literary fiction, I can still follow the relationships and the character deepenings. I can read two Americans having a conversation about childhood candies, and I'll still catch that one of them is more adventuresome than the other. Good writing kind of implies its meanings even beyond specific "things" - that's to say, I don't need the nouns in order to react to the verbs. Perhaps this is simply because the shifted relationship is evident thereafter, but it may also be to do with rhythms, asides etc. Eg,

      "Would you like X?" he asked.

      "Sure," I said. "Absolutely."

      "I mean, you don't have to," he said.

      "No, no, really," I said. "It's ... fine."

      "It's from Y," he said.

      "Gosh," I said. "Y".

      His smile hung in the mouldering air like a brand new suit.

      I bit into the delicacy, as over-spiced as it was disintegrating.

      "It's ... lovely," I said. "Really. I mean, lovely."

      "You're welcome."

      He sat back, the suit brokering his triumph.

      It doesn't matter what X is, nor where Y is. We get something out of the interaction even when those nouns are completely unknown.

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      • I think it is difficult to read or discuss anything completely objectively. We all come with our own background and baggage so we are sure to be subjective. That is why the world has room for so many different types of stories as different people enjoy and appreciate different things. 

        That said, I have found a lot of sense and help in Harry’s advice. On the face of it reading examples about a murder detective recovering from cotard syndrome doesn’t sound terribly relevant to someone trying to write kids’ books but actually certain things work well in any context and others can be adapted to suit.

        I am finding this whole learning experience fascinating. Not being as clever as Rick and Paul I am just hoping to soak up as much advice as I can get. And I love reading these snippets of other people’s stories, there is so much talent out there. 🙂

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