Tuesday 15 October 2019

Notes on editing dialogue for dramatic purpose - by Rowena House

In their excellent writing advice guide, On Editing, Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price note that: “great dialogue is about striking a balance between naturalism and purpose - knowing how you want your dialogue to sound, but also what you want it to achieve.”
Personally, I’d tweak that to read: “dialogue is about balancing dramatic purpose and simulated naturalism. Know what you want the dialogue to achieve, then decide how you want your characters to sound.”
A pedantic difference, perhaps, but increasingly it seems to me to be more than a chicken-and-egg situation. It’s about demarcating in one’s mind the difference between the product of writing and the process of getting there. The product, in this case, being the speech on the page, and the process being the craft of storytelling through dialogue.
In case this is of interest to others, here are some edited notes on the subject which I prepared for a mentee recently. Sorry they’re rather didactic; time ran away from me this month and I haven’t had time to make them more “bloggy”.
How does writing dialogue differ from storytelling through dialogue?
Writing dialogue relates to dialects and manners of speech, attributions, the rhythms and sounds of speech.
Storytelling through dialogue is about its dramatic purpose.
Editing for dramatic purpose therefore begins with the questions one asks about each conversation on the page. For me, the first question is this: what is this exchange achieving in terms of the overall story?
Really, there’s only one correct answer: it’s moving the plot along by…
One can fill in these dots in any number of ways. The dialogue might illustrate to the reader some aspect of a character’s personality, or develop a relationship, or lead to a moment of internal revelation, an epiphany of some sort.
Plot-wise, the protagonist might be prising information out of an ally or an antagonist, or maybe they’re building up to confess something important. The options are legion.
But in any event, the next question should be: are both the speaker’s intentions and the listener’s reactions clear to the reader?
I’m entirely persuaded by the many editors and writing gurus who say reaction beats are essential to signpost the direction of a conversation at pretty much every step.
            “I can’t bear that shade of red on a woman,” Deirdre said.
            Her husband rolled his eyes.
Without the reaction beat, Deirdre’s opinion floats, untethered, in the ether.
[Reactions that are actions also break up dialogue, which helps vary pace. Three to five exchanges is the maximum I’ve been recommended before something has to happen.]
Next I look for conflict in the dialogue: not shouty arguments but rising tension. As a rule of thumb, the more diametrically opposed the intentions of the participants in the conversation are, the more dramatic the dialogue is likely to be. If Character A really, really wants to get information out of Character B, give Character B a cracking good reason for wanting to keep that information secret.
Subtext comes next. That’s because, according to psychologists I’ve read, a large part of the pleasure and motivation for reading is the satisfaction we get from fathoming out the clues that the writer teases us with. If characters say exactly what they mean from the start, there’s nothing for the reader to work out, and the chances are the dialogue will come across as flat and boring, and the scene as a whole will lack nuance and subtlety.
[This assumes, of course, that the intended reader isn’t too young to understand the need to read between the lines. I don’t know how young is too young for subtext - it seems like an age since I talked to a child under 11 - but I’m pretty sure younger readers than that understand that people don’t always say what they mean.]
As with all dialogue, less is more when it comes to subtext:
            “Jasmine, you’re being stupid,” Dave said. “I didn’t even see Zoe yesterday.”
            Jasmine smiled. The Flame Pink lipstick she’d seen on his t-shirt told her everything she needed to know; only Zoe had been wearing that shade at the party.
            “Yeah. Right. Sorry.” She went into the kitchen and texted her mum. “Pick me up, would you? I want to come home.”
Despite the words spoken, the reader knows that Jasmine knows that Dave is lying. Her text to her mum is immediately comprehensible because the reader understands the subtext of her words, her smile and her action. We, the reader, might even infer from her smile that she’s been lied to before; this time it’s the final straw. The relationship is over.
Which leads onto….
What changes in the story due to this dialogue?
Without change, there is stasis, which is dull, so I subscribe to the theory that every scene needs a turning point, and without one, it’s not a proper scene.
As mentioned above, revelations and epiphanies are classic turning points for dialogue. Unexpected action - an interruption to the dialogue of some sort - also turns scenes effectively. Mixing and matching these options varies pace and keeps things fresh. [There are lots of other structural issues around turning points such as how they relate to the story’s Main Dramatic Question, but that’s for another time. Perhaps.]
Meanwhile, and I hesitate to add this given the sophistication of ABBA reader-writers, but since I’ve just been listening to Hilary Mantel’s amazing Reith Lectures again, and even she felt the need to remind her university audience of this original sin, I don’t feel too bad repeating it here: never give information to the reader that is already known by your characters in the guise of dialogue. Sure you see it in published books, but exposition disguised as dialogue really is a killer of authenticity.
Thank you for reading! Back again next month.

@HouseRowena on Twitter


Susan Price said...

All excellent points! Dialogue where characters tell us things they already know is often called 'As You Know, Bob' dialogue, from the exchange, 'As you know, Bob, we're brothers.'

If anyone can track down 'The Sci-Fi Writers Lexicon' (from which 'As-You-Know-Bob' comes) it's a great, funny guide on how to improve any kind of writing.

Rowena House said...

What a great way of putting it! I'll definitely track The Sci-Fi Writer;s Lexicon." Thanks, Susan.

Penny Dolan said...

"Reaction beats." What a useful term, Rowena!
So much easier to check for these - or correct any absence - once you have a name for what you're after.

Like that Lexicon!

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Penny. I read lots about it before The Goose Road development edit. I still find it tricky to get the balance right, though. And just spent the last four hours editing a 560-word passage of dialogue for the WIP!

Alex English said...

Another great post, Rowena. Thank you!
On the subtext front, even very little children enjoy this (in many of Jon Klassen's picture books the characters say one thing but are clearly thinking another - e.g We Found a Hat).

Anne Booth said...

That was a very helpful reminder to me today. Thank you. I had never heard of 'As you know, Bob' dialogue before, Susan. And like Penny, I really like the term reaction beats. That's very true, Alex, about picture book subtexts in word and picture. What an interesting post Rowena!

Rowena House said...

Thank you. A;ex & Anne. I've certainly popped 'as you know, Bob' into my toolbox of terms!

We Found a Hat is brilliant, Alex. I must look at it again. It would be an excellent example of subtext - demystifying it no end. Small children can be so much smarter than we remember (those of us who've lost touch with that age group). It's another of those golden rules for writers, isn't it? Never underestimate the intelligence of your reader.