Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Dialogue - You Don't Say!

Whither dialogue in the novel?

I mean just what do tranches of conversation bring to the prose table? In stage plays, any dialogue is layered and given subtext through the performance of the actors. All verbal communication in normal life takes place through the spoken word being augmented by facial expression, inflection, other physical gesture and the context of it being said.

The novel cannot offer sustained versions of all these buttresses, without the text grinding to a halt. You simply can't ascribe description of a facial expression or a hand gesture to every line of dialogue you write. As a form of shorthand, you could append 'he said acidily' or 'she averted her gaze as she said', but too much he said/she said grates pretty quickly.

I find where you get swathes of unmediated dialogue in novels, it is usually the writer trying to lever in back story. It's clumsy and more importantly, people don't spend swathes of time filling in events and describing incidents, at least not without commentary and judgement, which rarely gets a look in since the writer is only concerned with back story issues. Conversation is not the right medium to transmit such information.

Where conversation is important, is in allowing the reader to hear the character's voice. IE, its an adjunct of any physical description the author may have given, to enable the reader to picture the character more fully in their mind's eye. But in this way, you only need a modest snatch of conversation to convey how the character talks and how that reflects back on their personality. So for me, conversation is impressionistic and no more. Don't overload your dialogue with points to get across. And please save the reader from unmediated pages of dialogue, which always has me wondering what a character is doing with their hands and where their eyes are really focussing in the room.

I say all this having had a background as a playwright of 15 years. I can write dialogue. But I don't find it terribly germane to prose fiction. If you ever get the opportunity, see if you can eavesdrop or bear witness to a real life social situation such as someone being asked to explain their actions to a superior. Concentrate very hard on what is said, how the person describes their actions and tries to justify it or apologise for it. I promise you, if you had tried to write a pre-emptive version of it for prose purposes, your version would bear no resemblance to the actual version. You may claim that this is merely a shortcoming in the writer's craft, that they need more work. But it's for all the reasons I give above, about a playwright's ability to render just such a social scene, because he is assisted by flesh and blood actors, whereas the prose writer only has linear sentences flat on a page. The reader has to play both parts in any dialogue. Already that is limiting.

In one of my novels I played with these problems. The second third of the book was 'set' in cyberspace forums and messaging. This allowed me to tweak some of the restrictions. For example, by giving the time of each MSN post, the reader can gauge what lies behind the response - was it immediate, or did the poster give it some thought before replying? (The equivalent of a meaningful 'pause' in a playscript). Then there was the random element of posts that cross, thus fissuring the logic further. (I had great fun with this when recreating imaginary forum exchanges, where narrative logic was completely fractured as different voices cut across each other and responded asynchronously).

Yet the thing that really surprised me in the writing of these sections, was that my main character's voice necessarily changed. Prior to that in the first third of the novel, he expressed his thoughts and the odd fleeting verbal banter with his cronies, in his thick Yorkshire dialect. I wrote that section in his vernacular tongue. But in the second third where he was communicationg online, he didn't write in dialect. As a reasonably well educated bloke, he typed full words, not the bastardised prefixes and suffixes of local dialect. Since he was a character who was hiding his true identity from the reader anyway, this slippery quality between his morphing in and out of different voices suited the story rather well, but was one I had not forseen until it revealed itself. But it does suggest that people do formulate their thoughts in slightly different language than they speak in. And certainly different to how they write.

No comments: