Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Week 2: Dialogue

In my salad days, when I was green in judgement--and anyone who can tell me which Shakespeare play those lines come from earns a gold star--I belonged to a writers' group that had a very interesting modus operandi. Basically, any interested writer could show up at this Chinese restaurant. Newbies were put in groups of 3 or 4 and that was that. Talk about luck of the draw!

In my group that first night were two other young guns and one older woman. We all read a few pages from the manuscripts we were working on. The woman, who was obviously enthralled by her pages, read line after line of terrible dialogue. Of course I can't remember it verbatim but it was along the lines of "I just talked to John, who was best man at our wedding" and "I had lunch with our-daughter-in-law, Janey, who has blessed us with our three grandchildren..." It was awkward indeed giving feedback--I still remember the sensation of squirming in my chair while we tried to point out that people didn't talk like this. End of the story? The writer was disgusted with us and never returned to the group.

If only she had read Noah Lukeman's take on dialogue. Lukeman writes:
Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment. Dialogue is to the writer what the veto is to the president: it gives you great power and authority. If you overuse it, people will have to submit, but they will resent you for it; if you use it wisely, they will applaud your control, your willpower.
Lukeman covers five common ailments in dialogue.
  1. In Between the Lines (Chapter 6), he talks of the use of "he/she said," how often to use it, and where to place it in the sentence.
  2. Commonplace (Chapter 7) warns against using everyday dialogue ("Hello, how are you?") in the mistaken belief that dialogue has to be "realistic."
  3. In chapter 8, Informative, he warns against using dialogue to convey backstory, which was what ailed the writer in my above-mentioned writer's group.
  4. Chapter 9, Melodrama, advises us to use silence or action to convey drama, rather than having a character rant and rave. (His example: "Jane could yell and curse at Frank for twenty lines after he tells her he's been cheating on her, or she can turn and take off her wedding ring and flush it down the toilet.")
  5. Finally, in chapter 10, Hard to Follow, Lukeman warns against overuse of dialect and writing that is cryptic.
Most of these dialogue mistakes, as Lukeman points out, are mistakes a more advanced writer knows how to avoid. So, if your first five pages have made it this far, The Bigger Picture awaits. This is sheep-from-goat-separation time--and what I will focus on during our two remaining Wednesdays.

Have a good week, writing dangerously!

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