September 3, 2010

The Big Problems

So, let’s begin with a shameless plug…

You may have noticed the new button on the right for The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. It’s a new novel I co-wrote with Daniel Defoe and H.P. Lovecraft. Pick it up today and watch as I break every single suggestion and rule I’ve ever given here on the ranty blog by writing in Defoe’s style. Plus you’ll have some fun with it and hopefully even find it a bit creepy and chill-inducing at points. You may even shed a tear or two.

But now, back to out regularly scheduled rant…

I’ve prattled on here a few times about writing dialogue. I’ve talked about descriptor issues, genre problems, and more than a few times about spelling. Oh, the rants about spelling. I can feel another one building even now…

What I’d like to blather on about now, though, is a few big things. These issues tend to not be limited to this character or that character. They usually extend across a writer’s dialogue as a whole.

Some of these I’ve mentioned before, and you may notice some common threads between them. I like to break them down like this because I know the little distinctions help me notice this stuff sometimes in my own writing.

Monologues – If you don’t know the term for some reason, a monologue is when a character gives a long speech. Here’s a hint. If a character has a block of dialogue which fills more than half a page, in either script or prose format, it’s probably leaning towards a monologue. If there’s no one else in the room with them when they do this it’s definitely a monologue. Unless your character is named Hamlet and your name is William, this is generally a bad thing.

People don’t talk in monologues in normal, everyday life. Or even in abnormal, once-in-a-lifetime life. They stand out because most of the time they’re either a character thinking out loud or dumping a boatload of exposition, and either of these things can be accomplished in better ways–assuming they’re needed at all. There’s a reason screenwriter Brad Bird made fun of this dialogue habit in his movie The Incredibles.

If one of your characters is giving a monologue, ask why they are. Is it really an inner monologue that could be expressed through action or subtext? Is it an info-dump for the reader that may not be entirely necessary? If there’s someone else there, could this person be breaking that block of dialogue up by asking for clarifications, offering corrections, or even making jokes?

Declamation – Here’s a term you don’t hear tossed around much anymore. It’s when someone speaks in very practiced, rehearsed statements. Have you ever noticed how a lot of politicians or salespeople sound like they’re declaring things even when they’re asking questions? There’s a degree of absolute certainty to their statements that just comes across as false or staged.

Believe it or not, declamation used to be considered a minor art form. No, seriously. Read I, Claudius by Robert Graves sometime and check it out. Or just pretend to buy a car and spend half an hour on the lot. Or watch some FOX News commentaries. It tends to happen in writing a lot when characters are just the mouthpiece for a message from the writer.

Remember that real people–and real characters–don’t have everything rehearsed. They don’t always have the perfect word on the tip of their tongue. They get caught flat-footed and can’t come up with something to say. And sometimes they say the wrong thing.

Here’s an easy trick. If you think some of your dialogue may be more declaimed than spoken, look at the page for a few moments, then look away and try to speak that dialogue from memory. Did you get it word for word? Or did you substitute different words and simpler structure? That’s speaking versus declamation. Same information gets conveyed, but one doesn’t sound rehearsed.

Wooden – If you are wondering, dear reader, what a person means when they refer to dialogue as wooden, it means the lines of dialogue which are presented in such a blunt and dry fashion that they do not sound natural. These sentences tend not to have an organic flow to them. They are difficult to read because of this.

A common sign of such dialogue is a lack of contractions, which, as you all know, are a natural part of speech and conversation. Without contractions, the dialogue becomes stiff, thus the sobriquet “wooden.” A strict adherence to the rules of grammar is not unheard of, as well. These are not the only signs of wooden dialogue, however they are two of the most common.

You may have noticed, dear reader, that the previous two paragraphs lack the usual tone and cadence you may have become accustomed to in these posts. They seem a bit lacking and awkward to read. This is because I am forcing myself to write in a stilted, stiff manner not unlike that which I have seen in the wooden prose of some manuscripts.

And I’m sick of doing that sooooooooo… moving on.

On The Nose – What does it mean when someone tells you you’re right on the nose? It means you’re absolutely correct. Spot on. Got it in one. Right on target. Which is great if you’re doing pub trivia, but not so good in dialogue.

On the nose dialogue has no subtlety to it. It’s when people say exactly what they mean without a shred of caution or concealment. This dialogue isn’t layered with meaning because it’s not even layered. It’s the sheet cake of dialogue. It gets the job done, but only just, and you’re kind of left wondering if it was even worth it.

In real life, people beat around the bush. They’re coy. They feel each other out, in a verbal sense. They use implications, and inferences and innuendoes.

You want a phenomenal example of not on the nose dialogue? Watch Four Weddings and a Funeral and look at the scene about 2/3 of the way through when serial monogamist Charlie tries for a solid minute to declare his love for Carrie before ever getting around to saying it.

So, there you have it. A quartet of dialogue problems that tend to blanket work rather than cropping up here and there. Give your writing a look and see if there’s anything that stands out.

Next time around I want to toss out a few tips for getting from A to B. It really isn’t all that hard. Honest.

Until then, go write.