Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September 2015 — Show Don't Tell: Dialogue

 #9 Revision is a Process

This is Part 9 of a 12-part series on Revision is a Process @ 2015 All Rights Reserved

Are you writing the dialogue of fiction or of the reporter? 


I would amend that quote to: "Are you writing the dialogue of fiction or of the reporter or of an English teacher?

You see, dialogue, whether spoken words or an internalization, should mimic the speech of a real human being but filtered to get rid of extraneous elements, like "ah" pauses and redundancies.

When proper English rules are applied, the speech becomes stilted and unrealistic sounding. That's why it's said that the rules of grammar and punctuation don't necessarily apply when it comes to dialogue (in all its forms). So it's wise to do one revision pass looking only at dialogue passages, reading them aloud, and listening to how the words sound.

However, there is another factor about dialogue to consider— dialogue is action and often in the heat of writing that action, paragraphing gets skewed. Good paragraphing of dialogue shapes pace and makes the reading flow. But when to paragraph dialogue is often confusing. To understand when to paragraph, think of paragraphing like this:

The reader is in a theater seat watching a story play out on a stage. Onto that stage comes Character A. The reader is fascinated by Character A and keeps their attention on Character A while he handles props, moves about, thinks, breathes, and speaks.

Now Character B comes on stage. Immediately, the reader switches their attention to what Character B is doing or saying.

When Character A replies or reacts to Character B, the reader switches their attention back to Character A.  

In other words, if you're writing genre fiction, every switch of the reader's attention means a new paragraph.

And, that includes any worthwhile distraction that the reader must pay attention to will get paragraphed.
Now, here's something you should know about paragraphing spoken dialogue and that is, despite being taught that every new speaker gets a separate paragraph, in fiction you have beats and stage business—or even thoughts of the character and those USUALLY STAY TOGETHER
WITH THE DIALOGUE OR INTERNALIZATIONS, which means, they are kept in one paragraph.

Yes, there are some editors and teachers who insist all spoken dialogue be paragraphed all by itself. The trouble is, doing that means the reader doesn't know who is talking or thinking. Since the reader is confused, they stop reading and must reread to try to make sense of things.

And, as I've said many times in this series,
when writing fiction, the idea is never to stop a reader from reading. Of course, as with everything about writing, you'll hear pros and cons on this.  My advice is twofold:

1) know the rules before you decide to break them or tweak them


2) do research on your own and decide what you want to do FOR YOUR READER'S SAKE

dialogue isn't real speech but mimics what may be said by a real human being. Which means, you need to know the mechanics of presenting dialogue. And that's a workshop unto itself. However, your best bet is to read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Browne & King because it's the best book I've ever found on dialogue mechanics.

Another aspect of show-don't-tell when it comes to dialogue is punctuation. Do a revision round through your manuscript for exclamation points, dashes, and ellipses and mark each with a different color. Do you have clusters of colors? Do any dominate or pepper a page or pages? If there is a justifiable reason that those punctuation marks must remain, that's okay. If not, find a way to minimize or eliminate as many of them as you can.

Also do a pass to rid your manuscript of colons and semicolons. If you're writing genre fiction, with is informal writing and storytelling, those symbols will stop a reader and jerk them out of the story. And, again, the rule is to do nothing that stops the reader from reading. I can just hear someone reading this saying, "I know how to use colons and semicolons. I'm not changing any of them." Well, let me ask you a few questions:

a) who do you know talks or thinks in colons and semicolons? (I've never met or heard a person that used them, and I was a secretary/stenographer for years.)

b) when you read a story and come across a semicolon aren't you more likely to skip over it and keep reading rather than stopping to figure out what "rule" it signifies?

c) were you told there is a pause of silence or a sound of silence to a semicolon or colon? How do you actually make that sound in your mind? (I bet you get confused trying to do that, which is one of the reasons readers skip over the semicolon and colon when they see it in a story. Then there's the twenty-something who told me a few years ago that when she sees a semicolon, she considers it the writing winking back at her. Ah, the emoticon generation!)
Of course, the decisions you make about what to keep and what to change are yours to make, but make those decisions for the benefit of your readership.

And, let me stress one last time— when presenting dialogue, you need to show both spoken and internalizations with words that mimic a real person's voice, and so the rules of grammar and punctuation do not necessarily apply.

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