Curiously, I am now of a mind to return to the craft of writing. This section will discuss character and dialogue. The example I will use comes from Gardens of the Moon, Chapter Seven, the third section. The scene is with Lady Simtal and Councilman Turban Orr, and is set at her estate, in her bedroom.
I’ve chosen this scene for a number of reasons: firstly, it’s relatively short; secondly, it fuses character, character action, and dialogue in a way that is, I hope, both interesting and readily explicable.
Alas, because of length restrictions, I can’t include the excerpt here. You’ll need to find a copy of Gardens of the Moon; the section is about three pages, beginning with ‘The Lady Simtal paced…” If you don’t have a copy of the novel, you can try the local library. I can’t give specific page numbers because different editions have different pagination.
Many writers use dialogue for purposes of conveying plot elements, providing basic information and advancing the story. Often, among unmindful writers, this takes the form of Question and Answer, interspersed with exposition. I spent the last few minutes working up egregious examples only to find I can’t do any – I’ve lost the knack, if I ever had it in the first place. But I am sure you have noted examples of this kind of dialogue while reading books you later wish you’d never read. They come across as clunky, wooden, and sometimes ridiculously obvious – in other words, the dialogue doesn’t sound like ‘real’ conversation.
At the same time, there are instances where it is nevertheless necessary to convey plot elements through dialogue; the problems arise when that imperative overpowers other essential requirements: specifically, the need to convey a sense of the ‘real’ and the authentic; and of conveying character. These are people talking, after all, and each holds to his or her own needs, wants, fears, motivations and attitudes. Revealing these is achieved by the writer through describing action, thought, and dialogue. Granted, exposition supports all of this, but we’ll talk about exposition at another time.
But even then, the key to writing decent dialogue is, for me at least, found in working against all the currents of necessity. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take the above-noted requirements one by one.
1. Conveying Plot Elements
A certain amount of information is necessary, to maintain a sense of cohesion. There’s a sliding scale here. At one end you have writers like, oh, I don’t know, James Michener, whose novels read like text-books vaguely dramatized and stylistically suggestive of a roomful of hired researchers collating their notes (which, if the rumours are accurate, is precisely what they were).
On the other end, Cormac McCarthy, whose most recent writing seems to have taken the paring down into a form feeling both obsessive and compulsive, with the result so bereft of internal emotion that even reading it makes me feel repressed (yes, I know, I’ll take a lot of hits for this, and hasten to point out that it’s my opinion, no more and no less. The Road was for me an anorexic novel, so starved down all I could see were the bones of its construction, glaring out at me as if to say I’m still fat, I’m still eating too much, got to lose more weight, got to…
Oddly enough, I lean more towards McCarthy than Michener on that sliding scale. Even when I know that I need to give out information (dammit), I resist, push off in the opposite direction, fighting against the current of necessity. Which is probably why I lose readers early on in Gardens of the Moon. Not only do I not spoonfeed, I’ve taken a hammer to the spoon. It’s not just for reasons of personal taste, either.
These books are fat enough – I can’t even imagine how big they’d be if I did the info-dump thing – so there were practical reasons for staying terse. It’s also a matter of focus. Keep it tight and the big picture only shows up in the faintest hints, vague shapes sensed only peripherally. Until it’s time to look at ‘em.
The excerpt provides plot elements. The political consequences of the assassination that preceded this scene; a few details about other events (the arrival of Moon’s Spawn and the efforts to make contact with its inhabitants); and an indication that through these two characters schemes are at work that place other players at risk (ones we happen to like). But they are all subsumed, almost incidental to what’s driving the scene.
2. Conveying Character
Nobody converses from a position of unchecked openness. Ever. We are biologically designed to hide most of our inner world from the outer one. Sociobiologists might call it a survival imperative, slave to the necessity to ensure the continuity of our genes. Even without the genetic angle, being social creatures encourages us to hold back most of what we think and feel. We do this to get along. If we were truly open, oblivious to any notion of inside or outside, or barriers, we’d be ants.
At the same time, our biology maintains some essential holdovers we relegate to the ‘subconscious,’ to help us ‘read’ fellow humans. And that of course is all the nonverbal communication going on, which often belies our spoken words. As with any and all social creatures, we really only fight one war, and it is an information war, in which we are lone soldiers, where every alliance is shaky no matter how necessary. And we’ve been fighting it forever (who knows, maybe death is nothing but the collapse of those barriers, where we all flow into one single form of all-knowing. Called God, I suppose. An end to the war, a kingdom of peace. Nice thought).
So, we’re cagey, and that needs to play a role when presenting a character. Cagey is my byword on dialogue; and for those for whom I offer no internal point-of-view, cagey is the byword for character, too. Cagey cagey cagey.
You know the classic fantasy scene from AD&D where you walk into a tavern and ask somebody something and they actually tell you everything you need to know? Hate ‘em. No, hate’s too gentle a word. Despise. A perfect example of using dialogue to convey information – at the expense of character, realism, even imagination. Awful. Lazy. Insulting. Has this character no life beyond sitting there waiting to tell you all you need to know? No motivations? No secret likes, dislikes, fears, loves, weaknesses, hidden scars, sad memories?
Some beginning writers create these characters and then manipulate them solely to help guide along the hero(es). Might as well be automatons. I used to set up players in my role-playing games with just that scenario – tavern, some guy in the corner looking mysterious, and off the players would troop, sit down at his table, and start up a conversation. Or try to. This man has just had his false teeth stolen and not even a tyrant’s torturer could make him open his mouth, since he’s both vain and embarrassed, and you’d be, too, in his shoes. So, I made a point of confounding players’ expectations. This is what comes of being evil.
‘…in his shoes.’ That’s the key to all this. As writer it’s like this: you invented them, now you owe them. You owe them their space, their lives, their humanity. Maybe you won’t show much of all that, but it still needs to be there – or, of not there, then what needs acknowledging is that character’s right to that life, a right that must be respected. Writers who manipulate characters probably manipulate real people, too. I say ‘probably’ because, really, I haven’t a clue. Well, call it a suspicion. Comes down to respect, anyway, either way.
There’s an interplay of power going on between Simtal and Orr, and it switches back and forth multiple times, spelled out through non-verbal cues, silent interplay of actions, and spoken words (which mean one thing on the surface but something else under the surface). Simtal is actively engaged on all fronts and accordingly uses every trick. Find them. Her final gesture is overtly sexual (because sex is how she got all her wealth and power in the first place), and echoes to the scene’s pre-opening (the sex that has just occurred off-stage). Turban Orr is alternately unmindful of her efforts and cynically all-too-aware of them, and while arrogant it’s that arrogance that ultimately makes him vulnerable to Simtal’s manipulation.
So, there’s varying levels of self-awareness, gender-specific in some ways, with Simtal internalized (and it’s her bedroom, not his – imagine how different the scene would feel if it was his bedroom instead) with her ambitions, and Turban Orr externally directed with his (politics, etc). For him, the sex is a diversion also useful in terms of potential alliance; for her, sex is her only source of power. She wants him to arrange the murder of her ex-husband. He wants the power to indulge her wishes, with all the ease that he indulges his own (as he has just done).
The entire power play proceeds on distinct levels that still fizz on contact with each other: her non-verbal argument – which is all about who is in charge, post-coitally – which she almost loses (he ignores her to tie on his leggings) only to get back when she sprawls on the bed at the end – catching his eye one last time; and her interplay with him on subjects ranging from politics outside her interest (yet she uses the subject seeking to puncture his swagger, while he fends off her efforts almost haphazardly, which in turn leaves her on shaky ground, which then ups the venom of her words and makes more raw and obvious her nonverbal stuff) to the one subject obsessing her (her ex-husband).
The two are conjoined but their motivations are not. This is how you can get conflict from just two characters (never mind the only adage about three characters being the minimum). They want different things and most of what goes on between them is the economics of sex and power. Because those are what obsesses these two characters.
So, how does a writer go about making full use of all this? Here is an exercise I gave my workshop students a couple years back: two characters in a room at night, between them a dead body lying on the floor. Write two pages of dialogue with minimal exposition, under the following rules:
- They never mention the body.
- They never directly answer each other’s questions.
- No-one else arrives on the scene.
At the end of your two pages the reader should know who the dead person is, his/her relationship to the characters, and how the victim died. Let’s see some of your work in the days to come, and I’ll comment as best I can.
No-one likes being asked direct questions – that’s why courts have all those swearing-in rituals and perjury laws. We’re naturally evasive. We don’t like to get pinned down. We often lie and with good reason, too. The writer has to think about all these things when creating dialogue, so that everything a character says is squeezed out reluctantly, from that hidden reservoir of fears, desires, etc. People don’t really talk to each other; they talk past each other.
Conversely, a person can talk endlessly – this too is a defense mechanism. Who pays attention or makes the effort to find the gems amidst all the detritus? Kruppe is that kind of character; everything he says is misdirection, so in that sense he is giving voice to the very evasiveness I’m talking about here. And he does so entirely aware of what he’s up to, and it amuses him. I guess in those instances, Kruppe is me.
Every time you have someone ask a question, draw up short and consider how the character being addressed can evade answering directly. If required, have them answer but only in their heads (so we don’t see it) and then have them utter a statement based on that hidden, unspoken, unknown answer. Leapfrog the dialogue so that we know stones have been jumped over even though we can’t see them, and we know the importance of each stone by how high the person jumps.
Get into the habit of this and you’ll be amazed at how dialogue just sings along, and ‘sounds’ almost natural (but not so natural that we die of boredom – condense reality to keep it lively). Obviously, there will come moments in the story when things get raw, when all the subterfuge is torn away, but the dramatic impact of those instances is entirely dependent on all the times when it’s all stayed under the surface, molten, bubbling away – the longer you hold back on the explosion the more powerful it will be when it finally comes.
There’s a style of writing (Carveresque) where the explosion never comes; where it’s all just ratcheted up and up and up, and then suddenly the story’s done. Works best with short stories. In novels it just makes you want to scream at the last page. Or there is a style where the eruption is exclusively in the reader’s inner world (I did plenty of that in my series, say, with some scenes closing Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice and House of Chains, and, finally, The Crippled God – the characters stayed tightly bound, transferring the anguish to the reader, but each time, the scenes needed to be carefully worked towards, so that the collusion of circumstance and character serves to deliver a single crushing blow. Which is why I consider what I write to be tragedy).
Anyway. As you can see I didn’t do a line-by-line analysis here. You can do the work with what I’ve provided, if you’re so inclined. The process of deconstruction is one every beginning writer should work towards mastering, as a way of demystifying the process of writing, and of moving past the ‘I write from instinct’ rubbish I recall hearing from fellow students back in the writing programs I attended. Instinct only works until something goes wrong, at which point you don’t know how to figure out what happened, much less fix it. It’s not a magical process, this writing. It’s the brain working on every cylinder, full tilt, max RPMs, until you start bleeding out the ears.
What could be more fun than that?
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