“What’s left?” Fred asks.
“Well,” says the Author, sezee, “we haven’t specifically discussed dialogue as it’s used in genre writing, although we’ve mentioned several genres, and we have examples of dialogue as it’s used in some of those.”
“Such as?” Fred Foyle leans forward in the Lazyboy and casts his eyes toward the ceiling, as though he were trying to remember some genres. “Wait!” he says, “I recall some things. You mentioned J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and you pointed out that he used a slightly elevated diction and a formal syntax to indicate an invented archaic language.”
“Something like that,” the Author replies. “But every case will be different and require its own adjustments in approach.”
Fred nods. “I can see that. after all, ‘MacFarlane of Ergos’ was a sort of fantasy, and you had to adjust in several ways for that – the pseudo-Scots dialect, the somewhat formal diction of Holmesby…”
“And Dune is science fiction. For the most part,” the Author points out, “writers are going to use standard American or standard British when they write, with particular adjustments in grammar, syntax, and diction for particular characters. Here’s a bit from Harry Bates’ science-fiction story, ‘A Matter of Size’ “:
The ethologist, becoming aware that Miss So-and-So had said “How do you do!” in the most conventional of Earth fashions, in turn nodded and mumbled something himself. Jones smiled broadly and, stepping to the door, begged to be excused, saying he was overwhelmed with work.
“Miss CB-301 speaks your language perfectly,” he said, “and will explain such things as are permitted. I’ll be back presently.” And the door clicked closed behind him…
What should he say to the female? Nice day? No – better, flattery. He complimented her on the lack of accent in her speech. It suggested unusual brains in one so young.
“Oh, but no – I’m really terribly dumb!” the young thing gushed sincerely. “I could hardly get through my fourth-dimensional geometry! But English is easier. Don’t you think so?”
“I see what you mean – she’s differentiated by breathiness and gushiness, but not by accent or anything unusual in her verbal constructions.”
“Right,” the Author agrees, “and that’ll even hold true for juveniles that are fantasies. Here’s a short segment of the novel Watership Down by the English author Richard Adams. The speakers are rabbits”:
Bigwig, crouched close to Blackberry in the straw of the cattle shed, leaped to flight at the sound of the shot two hundred yards up the lane. He checked himself and turned to the others.
“Don’t run!” he said quickly. “Where do you want to run to, anyway? No holes here.”
“Further away from the gun,” replied Blackberry, white-eyed.
“Wait!” said Bigwig, listening. “They’re running down the lane. Can’t you hear them?”
“I can hear only two rabbits,” answered Blackberry, after a pause, “and one of them sounds exhausted.”
“But this is a novel for older children, isn’t it?” Fred asks, riffling through the pages. “It looks as though even adults could enjoy it.”
“It was a huge best-seller in the United States when it was published in the early seventies,” the Author says. “But there’s not a huge adjustment to make, even for younger children. A writer doesn’t have to condescend to them, just be clear and uncomplicated, as in drama. Furthermore, one mustn’t be afraid of repetition – kids love hearing a story over and over again, and they learn that way.”
“By hearing the main points or foreshadowing or, whatever it may be, more than one time during the course of the story. Here’s a bit of the beginning of “Murgatroyd and Mabel” by Wesli Court. It’s about two caterpillars, both of whom build cocoons, but only one of whom – Mabel – grows wings; the other, her friend Murgatroyd, emerges at first seemingly unchanged, until they realize that he’s grown a propeller instead”:
Murgatroyd and Mabel were caterpillars, and they were very good friends. Murgatroyd was a sort of spring green in colour, with bright orange spots, and Mabel was covered with soft brown fur. She had two pretty yellow tufts on her head, like a hat.
One day as they were out walking – or creeping, rather – a very strange feeling began to come over Murgatroyd. “Mabel,” he said, “a very strange feeling is beginning to come over me. My back itches, and my head is very light.”
“Really, Murgatroyd?” Mabel asked, and she stopped to think for a minute. Then she said, “You know, I think I’m beginning to feel the same way.” So Murgatroyd and Mabel stood thinking about their backs itching and about how their heads felt very light. Suddenly Mabel said, “I know what it is, Murgatroyd. My mother told me this would happen one day.”
Murgatroyd looked at her with a little worried frown on his green face with orange spots. But Mabel only laughed. “It’s nothing to worry about, silly. It’s just that the time has come for us to build our cocoons.”
“That sounds nothing at all like Brer Rabbit,” Fred says. “There’s not a whole lot of different between it and ordinary standard English except for the repetitions.”
“And the simple, declarative sentences with their uncomplicated syntactical constructions. The level of diction is mean, and the whole story is built for hearing, not just the dialogue.”
“I get the idea.” Fred tucks his chin into his hand and leans over the shoulder of the Author. “I notice the story stays away from colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions, too. Now – “ he steps back and stretches –“ what other genres have we got to talk about?”
“Let’s take a look at a romance by Daniel Steel… it’s from her novel Crossings.”
“Anything in particular I ought to be looking for?”
“Yes. Notice how she uses those things you just said were left out of the children’s story – colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions – and how she keeps the action going simultaneously with the conversation. While Hillary, in a hotel in Cannes, is talking with her husband on the phone, she is also interacting with her lover”:
“Sorry to bother you, Hil.”
“Is something wrong?” The thought instantly crossed her mind that something had happened to Johnny, and as she walked naked across Philip Markhan’s room, holding the phone, her face wore a nervous expression. She glanced guiltily at him over her shoulder and then turned away as she waited for Nick’s answer.
“Have you read the papers yesterday or today?”
“You mean that thing about the Germans and the Russians?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.”
“Oh, for chrissake, Nick. I thought something had happened to Johnny.” She almost sighed with relief as she sat on a chair and Philip began to stroke her leg as she smiled at him.
“He’s fine. But I want you to come home.”
“You mean now?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what I mean.”
“Why? I was coming home next week anyway.”
“That may not be soon enough.”
“For what?” She thought he was being a nervous fool, and she laughed as she watched Philip make funny faces and make obscene gestures as he returned to their freshly rumpled bed.
“I think there’s going to be a war. They’re mobilizing the Fresh army, and things are liable to explode any day.”
“Lots of action there,” Fred notes.
“Both physical and verbal,” the Author agrees.
“And Steel slows it down as little as possible – there aren’t even tag lines in the passage you quote, and even though three people are in on the action, the reader is never confused about who is doing or saying what.” Fred smiles. He is clearly delighted.
“No doubt,” he continues, “the same is true for adventure stories or spy novels.”
“Let’s check it out,” the Author says. “Robert Ludlum in The Bourne Conspiracy uses tremendous amounts of dialogue. There are whole pages of it, with just a line or two of narration in between the speeches”:
“Who sent you?” asked the Oriental of mixed blood, as he sat down.
“Move away from the edge. I want to talk very quietly.”
“Yes, of course.” Jiang Yu inched his way directly opposite Bourne.
“I must ask. Who sent you?”
“I must ask,” said Jason, “do you like American movies? Especially our Westerns?”
“Of course. American films are beautiful, and I admire the movies of your old West most of all. So poetic in retribution, so righteously violent. Am I saying the correct words?”
“Yes, you are. Because right now you’re in one.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I have a very special gun under the table. It’s aimed between your legs.” Within the space of a second, Jason held back the cloth, pulled up the weapon so the barrel could be seen, and immediately shoved the gun back into place. “It has a silencer that reduces the sound of a forty-five to the pop of a champagne cork, but not the impact. Liao jie ma?”
“Liao jie…” said the Oriental, rigid, breathing deeply in fear.
“That convention just seems to rip along,” Fred says. “How is it that you haven’t talked about the rhythms of dialogue? Shouldn’t you have said something about that back when we were discussing pace?
The Author sits back and stares at the computer terminal for a few moments. “I’ve been putting it off,” he says.
“Because what you just said – that the’ conversation just seems to rip along’ is about as much as most people who write about dialogue say, only they tend to use the word ‘flow’ – the dialogue is supposed to ‘flow.’ “
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong is that to say so is to say nothing. Any idiot ought to know that dialogue should run along like water and keep the reader’s attention. The problem is that water can ‘flow’ in hundreds of ways. It can move gently toward the sea; it can dash through rapids; it can roar over cataracts, or it can be as majestic as the Mississippi.”
The Author is just warming up. “A writer can learn the rhythms of speech in two ways, it seems to me. By trial and error one can develop an ‘ear’ for dialogue, or one can study language formally and learn about its rhythms the way a poet learns, by ‘scanning’ it and developing an ear according to a program of study.”
“What do you mean, an ‘ear’?” Fred asks.
“J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye is one of the best-selling books of all time. Here’s one of the reasons why – Holden Caulfield says, ‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.’ That’s not very good grammatically or syntactically. It’s not what one would call ‘realistic’ in the sense that it’s verisimilitudinous dialogue.”
(“Ye gods!” Fred whispers to himself.)
“But what it is is absolutely accurate. Every American teenager who loves to read will probably recognize it as his or her own speech – but more than that, as his or her own thoughts verbalized.”
“I see that,” Fred says. “You mean it’s psychologically and linguistically accurate.”
“And appropriate to the character as well. Everything works. It’s as though Salinger had reached into the reader’s brain, pulled out his or her own thoughts, and put them into the mouth of a character that the reader recognizes as himself or herself. That is an ear. Perhaps one can be born having the talent to write that,” the Author says, shaking his head, “but I think it’s more likely Salinger spent a lot of time listening to the way people – especially young people – talk, and then a lot more time trying to get it right on paper.
“And there are all kinds of rhythms, too,” the Author continues.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, sometimes you don’t want language to ‘flow.’ For instance, if you have a person, let’s say, who is out of breath, you’re going to want to do something like this, perhaps”:
“Oh!” she gasped, “that man – help! My purse… he took it! Please! Stop him. Stop him!” she screamed.
“Dialogue should never look composed,” the Author continues, “it ought not to look as though it’s been written. What you want is to approach the Salinger ideal: dialogue ought to appear to be overheard.”
“So that’s what you’d recommend?” Fred asks.
The Author nods emphatically, “Listen and write, and study the craft.”
The two of them – the Author and the would-be writer – sit quietly for a few minutes listening to Debussy’s “La Mer” issuing dreamily from the speakers and, under it, the hum of the air conditioner.
“Okay, Fred,” the Author says at last, “let’s see if you’ve been listening. What are some of the things you’ve learned or figured out?”
“Final exam time?” Fred grins.
“Right. Well, for one thing I think one needs to break up dialogue at strategic places, especially monologues.”
“With action, with the short remarks, replies, or interjections of other characters, with scene-setting and atmosphere – almost anything that’s relevant to the story.”
“Fine. Anything else?”
“Don’t use people’s names too often. In real life people don’t continually address each other by name. when they greet each other on meeting, I notice, they may say, ‘Hello, Joh,’ or ‘Hi, Mary,’ but after that, they stop using their names. For instance, this is an unnatural conversation”:
“Gee, John, I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays.”
“No, where have you been keeping yourself, Mary?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, John, I’ve not been well.”
“Oh, Mary! I’m sorry to hear it.”
“I’m better now, John. No need to worry.”
“I’m certainly glad to hear that, Mary.”
“Good point,” the Author says. “If your concern is that the reader will lose track of who’s talking, figure out other ways of tipping them off. Tag lines are the simplest expedient. But generally it’s not hard to know who’s speaking if the characterization and situations are clear.”
“And be subtle in the way you introduce background information such as scene-setting and exposition. Don’t put it all into someone’s mouth,” Fred says. “Get as much of that sort of thing worked into the fabric and action of the story as possible, and if you have to, just be straight about it. Do it and get it over with.”
“Sure,” Fred says. “Remember all that stuff about the ‘scientific’ qualities of ectoplasm that you had in ‘Scot on the Rocks’? I guess stuff like that has to be done in science fiction sometimes, and I think I liked it better when you just explained it than I would have if you’d tried to disguise it as dialogue or something like that – though it was still pretty heavy-handed, at that.”
“And stay away from summary dialogue, if possible,” the Author says.
“Have we talked about that?”
“Yes, when we discussed ‘describing dialogue instead of writing it out”:
“Where have you been?” he asked, and he spent the next ten minutes listening to her talk about her latest operation, the five days she had spent in the hospital, and all the pain and discomfort she had felt and was, for that matter, still feeling. “I’m so sorry to hear it,” he said, glancing at his watch, “but I’m afraid I have to run now.” He began to edge away from her… “a bus to catch,” he said.
“But wasn’t that a legitimate use of summary dialogue?” Fred asks. “It was better than subjecting the reader to the whole boring monologue.”
“Oh, sure! I didn’t mean to imply one should never use it. But one should not substitute it for speech when dialogue would serve one’s purposes better. Sometimes beginning writers use summary dialogue to avoid having their characters talk.”
“And there should be tension in the dialogue,” Fred says, “as there was in the Ludlum and Steel passages. It seems to me that slack dialogue is probably about as boring as tons of exposition would be. Something ought to be happening between the people conversing.”
“Dialogue ought always to be doing more than one thing,” the Author types, nodding in agreement. “While it is going on it ought to be advancing the plot, or characterizing, or setting the scene, foreshadowing, or whatever, at the same time that it is operating as a medium for the exchange of information.”
Again there is silence in the attic room. The Author clears his throat but says nothing. He fidgets, staring at the monitor.
“Is that about it?” Fred asks at last.
“I guess that’s it,” the Author replies. “Did you learn anything else in our Socratic dialogue?”
“Several things, but one important question has been raised that hasn’t been answered, it seems to me.”
“As for instance?”
“Which of us is the Author, and which the foil?”
“You mean you think you’re a real, not an invented character?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because this is a book of nonfiction on the subject of dialogue.”
“But it’s also a book of fiction on a nonfiction subject.”
“Not if I’m real,” Fred Foyle points out.
“But you’re not.”
“What makes you think you’re real?” Fred asks.
“I had the first word in the book, the genesis, as it were, so I’m the prime cause of the treatise.”
“You may have had the first word,” Fred Foyle points out, “but I’ll have the last one.”
©Andrea MarshallDogson 1973