Friday, July 31, 2020

What Dialogue Can Do for Your Book--And What It Should Never Try to Do

In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry. They mostly wanted to know what editors looked at first, when reviewing a manuscript?

Answer: Editors scan the pages for a section of dialogue. They read it. If it's good, they read more.

If it's not good, the manuscript is rejected.

In August I will teach my yearly dialogue workshop, this time on Zoom. I'm gathering new material and exercises as I find them, and published excerpts we can study as a group to see what Browne and King meant.

But I can't help but remember my life as a restaurant chef, in southern California, working with a wonderful team of cooks. And how, after hours, we slummed by visiting other restaurants to taste their soups.

Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill. Most are hard to season expertly, impossible to fake, unless so-so entrees that can be disguised with great sauces. In the food biz, at least when I was working, soups were the litmus test for a cook's skill.

A strange analogy, perhaps. But it helps me get why dialogue is an important key to many editors. A so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters or majestic writing. But dialogue is the "soup" test to a writer's baseline skills.

Does the dialogue contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)? Are the beats (pauses) placed well? Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

On your next soup take-out run, try out my theory. Do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few dialogue tips making their way into my workshop on August 22.

Tip #1: Most dialogue is not about revealing information.

Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject. This is called a "reveal." Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc. If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension. The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story. This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax.

Reveals are where someone says what they mean. So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again: Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext. This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering. Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said. All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Tip #2: Enhance the emotion of the subtext by connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 

In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin. Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character.

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man. Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off.

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances. No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed. So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up.

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill: As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier. The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints.

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels. The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly.

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done. And try it yourself: If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way. Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Tip #3: Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats. A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge. At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader. In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like road maps in dialogue. They are placed carefully because of this one rule: Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension. Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example:
"I love you," he said, "not her."

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read: "I love you, not her," he said. (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference? Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue?

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said).

"I know your name." He took a pull on his drink. "I just forgot it." (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

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