Dialogue Day II, The Sequel
OK. More dialogue today.
Three little bits of housekeeping first.
Number One. The Summer Festival was such a massive hit, we’ve decided to bring that vibe into our JW membership package – lots of regular, live material, from a whole range of different, brilliant speakers. You can see our autumn line-up here. We’ll be making big plans for next year as well. There’s no extra cost for any of this – it’s all free within your membership. Hooray.
Number Two. We’ve always been keen to help people where we can and, to celebrate the end of the Summer Festival, we’re going to give 10 under-represented writers free memberships for a year. More about how to enter at the end.
Number Three. We got into a fight with Jeff Bezos last week – and lost. Your email this week comes on a Friday. Next week, it might be either Thursday or Friday, and it will sizzle with good things.
Right. Nuff of that.
I was going to offer up a couple more snippets with comments this week, but I picked one to start with, and that one ran away with me.
So just one snippet this week. Take a look at how contrary, how twisty this one three-hundred word chunk is. Look at how silence can operate in the same was as actual dialogue. How silence can push back at the reader, at the listener. And how the real thing being revealed by dialogue isn’t so much the content of what’s being talked about as the emotional reactions of the speakers to that content.
REBECCA / NO TITLE
Ida has recently lost her hand and had a vicious go at her best friend as a result of which she has locked herself away in her room. She set her maid outside her door to stop people from entering but her lover, who is also a military General, has come to see her.
The door clicked shut and a momentary silence fell over the room. Why was he here?
"If you've come to lecture me then you are too late," she said. "I've already had enough lectures for the day."
It wasn't true. She hadn't had any. Agatha had come yesterday and given her an earful. She had told her 'This is not how a young woman behaves…', and 'You should know better than to be so vulgar in public…', that she had '…been raised to be more tactful'. They were nothing new, but coming from the woman who was more of a surrogate grandmother made them sting just as much as if Agatha had taken Ida over her knee and smacked her.
"That is not the reason I came," he said. "Though all I will say on the matter is while Vastian was clearly not thinking when he opened his mouth, your outburst was inappropriate."
Her fingernails dug deeper into the wood of the chair.
"No, the reason I came is to tell you, in case you didn't know, he's gone."
There was a tightening in her chest. She did know. Aidric did not need to elaborate. She had woken early that morning and gone to her balcony for air. From there she saw Vass leave on his horse, its saddle bags heavily laden.
"I know," she said.
"He'll be back."
"I doubt it."
Vass had only done what any sensible person would do if their friend had treated them in such a way.
"Of course he'll come back. Friendships don't end because of one argument."
No, she guessed they didn't. Still this felt more final, worse than an argument.
The reason I picked this is because it’s a really nice example of how fluid and mobile and surprising even quite a short piece of dialogue-led text can be. It’s also a good example of how silences can register as effectively as sentences.
Take the silences first.
When Aidric enters the room, he says nothing. The question looms, “Why was he here?”. That’s a question for the character, of course, but it becomes one for the reader too. The silence is a little marker of the question’s importance. It’s like there’s something too holy, too important, about the question for it simply to be asked out loud.
And, crucially, if you set up a question like that, you have to not answer it – or not answer it quickly.
So instead, the speaker turns her back on the question. Instead of saying, “Why are you here?”, she starts telling him about lectures.
Then, the passage that follows turns its back on the character’s own statements. (“It wasn’t true. She hadn’t had any.”) Then proceeds to give a true statement of events.
So we start with a legitimate question about her lover’s presence. Then the character bats that question away with what she says. Then the text bats what the character says away, and takes us off into a little surrogate grandmother moment. (That grandmother moment has one bad sentence, by the way. The sentence starting ‘They were nothing new …’ is a bit of a mess grammatically. That happens weirdly often when a sentence gets over a certain length – this one is 34 words. The trick, of course, is editing with care and paying extra attention when a sentence starts to feel unwieldy.)
But, OK, we’re now one hundred words into the snippet. The original question is still hanging, of course, but it’s got more urgency and interest than if we hadn’t – twice – turned away from it. Its charge has been increased, not reduced, by the delay.
But then the military man drags the question back into the room – but still backwards. (“That’s not the reason I came. Though all I will say on the matter…”)
So now we – the character and the reader together – know the real reason is about to emerge.
Time for another silence. You need to approach these big moments slowly.
As it happens, I don’t like the “fingernails dug deeper” bit. To me, those sentences feel like authorial shorthand, a type of cliché. (“Oh, shucks. I’ve got a moment of unbearable tension coming up. How do I signify that quickly? Oh yes. Fingernails digging into something. That’ll do. Bish bosh, OK, what next?”)
All the same, I like the silence. We just need any little trench between Aidric’s first comment (“That’s not the reason I came”) and the comment that follows. We just need a way to extend the reader’s suffering.
Lovely. And even better – that comment, “She did know.” This whole passage has played a kind of double game with us. The passage presents as though something of great significance is about to be revealed. Only – ta-daa! – it turns out that the protagonist is already well aware of it. And presumably was well able to guess what Aidric was about to tell her.
Now all this might seem like a damn stupid way to convey information, except that the passage isn’t really there to convey information about the departed Vass at all.
I mean, yes, the reader needs to know that Vass has left. And it does the job, right at the end, by saying, “she saw Vass leave on his horse”, nice and clear and simple.
But really, that piece of information is secondary to the question of how does Ida feel about it? And that question doesn’t have a nice, simple, tidy answer. Ida is in a muddle and so is the text. She evades the question, she lies, she goes silent, she delivers information well after it was logically time to release it. And that’s how Ida feels.
And that’s what dialogue does. It doesn’t just tell readers how Ida feels, it shows them. And the twisty, resistant, contradictory untruthfulness of the dialogue is reflective of a complicated mess of feelings in Ida. There’s no way you could tease those feelings out any other way.
Dialogue? I love it. It’s probably my favourite-favourite thing to write and I have a lot of favourites. That’s all from me.
I’m going to saddle up my horse and ride away from this castle. I’m pretty sure there’s a ghost in the Great Hall and its battlements smell of raven poo. Giddy-up.
Let me know what you think about all this, folks. And again, if you're a JW member, do remember our fab, free line up of autumn events here. It includes me juggling eels live online, so - what can I say? - it's gonna be good. And if you are keen to grab one of our bursaries, then:
- To enter, simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Use the subject line ‘MEMBERSHIP BURSARY ENTRY’
- Do this by 24 September
- Tell us, in fifty words, why you want to join Jericho Writers as an under-represented writer.
That's it. Toodle-pip!