Thursday, April 6, 2017

The voice in your head, other voices in the room

In my previous post, Texas writers Rosemary Clement-Moore and Melissa DeCarlo began a dialogue with members of the Writers Guild of Texas  about writing fictional dialogue. With a mutual background in theater, Clement-Moore and DeCarlo know dialogue both from the standpoint of writers and of actors – both what it is, and what it isn’t.

Clement-Moore (l) & DeCarlo
Far from being mere transcriptions of “actual” speech, fictional dialogue – like stories themselves – are creations of art, realer than real-life semblances of speech with the boring parts left out.

But as the term “dialogue” implies, it’s a two-sided process. One character says something, then another. And adversarial, tense, or oblique though the exchange may be, it’s not hard for a writer – or reader -- to keep track of who said (or didn’t say) what.

There will be more tips later in this post for keeping track of who’s talking at a given point, but what about the still trickier situation when several people are talking together? Or when your character is talking to himself.

The technical term for the single character’s silent soliloquy is internal monologue, but as many of us know – however much we try to hide it from our medical advisers – it often takes the same two-part structure as dialogue. And thinking of this internal discussion by a character with different facets of herself – “interrogation or rumination” -- can give monologue the dynamism of spoken dialogue.

As such, treat it with respect. Use it in first, second, or third-person, but always in present tense.

Interior monologue should perform the same functions as spoken dialogue – information, characterization and tension. And, incidentally, it has the same ability to break up the pattern of print on a page or screen as dialogue, so keep it as terse as a conversation between characters.

Should interior monologue by italicized? a workshop participant asked.

That depends on personal preference (as well as the style of a writer’s editor or publisher. Whatever you do, however, whenever tempted to write “thinks to himself,” Clement-Moore said, “scratch that.”

But what about scenes in which three or four people are talking at once?

“It’s a juggling act,” Clement-Moore admitted. “You want to make sure you have them (speak) with different points of view. Every person is going to have their own agenda, and conversational tactics to get what they want.”

Her suggestion for learning how to differentiate between multiple speakers is to study how well-written dialogue is handled in TV and movies.

“Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The West Wing (or classic on-screen works of your choice). Willow wouldn’t speak like Zander, and her concerns wouldn’t be the same as his.”

It’s also permissible to use speech tags – Willow said/Zander said -- just as with two-character conversations, to give readers less subtle cues to who’s speaking a given line of dialogue. Just don’t overdo the tags.

“Use them when necessary,” DeCarlo said. “(But) I use business as much or more than tags.”

Business – “what some people call action tags,” Clement-Moore said, include statements such “Willow scanned the pages,” inserted before, after, or within lines of dialogue much as “Willow said,” might be.

But whether speech tags or action tags, they should be as close to invisible as possible. Unusual speech or action tags, they warned, can interrupt the narrative stream. And anything that gets between the reader and the character, that shouts, hey, look at me, I’m a writer, is deadly.”

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