Tuesday, April 4, 2017

She said/she said: two writers dish about dialogue

If anybody knows how fictional characters do – or don’t – talk, it should be actors. Fortunately for attendees at the Writers Guild of Texas  spring writing workshop, dual presenters Rosemary Clement-Moore (Texas Gothic and more) and Melissa DeCarlo (The Art of Crash Landing)
Clement-Moore (l) & DeCarlo
have not only the writing but acting chops (Clement-Moore in theater and improvisational comedy), DeCarlo in community theater, to know how dialogue works on the page – or the stage. And their she said/she said rapport kept the room full of writers on the edge of their seats.

Don’t dread dialogue, they assured us. It’s not only fun to write but a great way to overcome fear of being confronted with a blank page (or screen).

Clement-Moore admits being so addicted to witty repartee on the page that she’s been known to write it by the page without regard for what it does for the story. Is it word lost? Not at all! Even if the dialogue didn’t work, “At least now you have words on the page you can work with. It’s how I discover things for myself (and) the easiest way, when you’re facing a blank page, to kickstart your writing.”

None of which means, they told us, that dialogue is simply a transcription of actual speech.

Ever listened to a verbatim transcript of speech, say from a court reporter? they asked. Boring! Instead, dialogue, one of the major components of fiction, is “a semblance of speech” that needs to convey information, develop characters, and add tension to the story.

About that tension. . .

Clement-Moore: “As human beings, we learn to reflect (mirror) each other, (but in fiction), that’s what we want to get rid of. Get rid of the nicey-nice stuff.”

Instead of following the polite rules of conversation, in which people are expected to answer questions put to them, in fiction, when “one person asks a question, the other doesn’t answer, or answers only obliquely – anything other than what you expect.”

DeCarlo: “You almost want dialogue to be awkward. Keep everybody a little off balance. When you can, avoid pointblank questions. Misunderstanding is a great dialogue tool.”

Clement-Moore: “When you sidestep the obvious answer, it’s a good thing.”

How to manage that “sidestep”?

One way is the nonsequitur sidestep, in which a character responds with something completely different from either the question asked, or the general tone of the preceding conversation, wrenching the dialogue in a completely different direction.

Other sidestep methods: simply being quiet. Still another: action, both of which allow a character to say a lot without saying anything.

DeCarlo: On the other hand, “You can’t ever have people avoid answer a question either or it looks like an argument. It doesn’t have to be angry for there to be tension. It can be teasing, but even teasing is tension.”

“Conflict occurs if we both have different goals. (Dialogue) should move the story forward,” Clement-Moore said, urging writers to ask themselves “what changes in the story over the course of the dialogue? How does the conversation change the outcome, for better or worse?”

“Dialogue has to earn its keep,” DeCarlo said. “It takes up a lot of space on the page. It should earn that space.”


More dialogue tips to come, including conversation between multiple characters in a scene and conversation with only one character involved – the internal monologue (or is it a dialogue)? But until I return to the subject, check out other tips from one of Clement-Moore’s and DeCarlo’s own sources, How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them, by publisher/instructor/author Sol Stein.

And check here for more about the Writers Guild of Texas and its programs (including this summer’s visit from Australian author Kate Forsyth).

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