Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dialogue Part 2 - On And Off The Nose

Part 1 of this series was not labeled Part 1, but it is:


This Part 2 is an advanced lesson on writing.  Below you'll find a links to a plethora of relevant posts I've done here previously, because the subject of Dialogue integrates all the techniques I've discussed. 

And no, we're not talking here about characters who talk "down their nose" at other characters, or who stick their nose into others' business.  The metaphor is about "hitting it on the nose."  Saying exactly what you mean, defining things exactly, is "hitting it on the nose."  You "hit it on the nose" when you "reveal" something very concrete and specific about a murky topic, when you clarify matters, when you eliminate confusion, when you shatter an illusion. 

The term "on the nose dialogue" is from screenwriting, well, play writing too.  On the nose dialogue is one reason that a script would be returned unread.  If the first line of dialogue on page one is "on the nose" the script will be rejected. 

This is often true in novel or story writing as well, though you might get 5 pages to show you know how to keep dialogue off the nose. 

There is nothing more "murky" than the emotional life of a human being.  When you "reveal" that inner dialogue as spoken dialogue, you are writing dialogue that is "on the nose."  It's a tool in the writer's toolbox, and it can be used to devastating artistic effect, but first the writer must master that tool. 

And the first step toward mastery is definition. 

"Advertising copy" is a blatant example of "on the nose" writing.

An ad just says what it means.  If it doesn't, you get the effect we see with so many TV commercials (which I  have recommended you study for "show don't tell" techniques) where there's an amusing image or sequence, and you can't recall what product the ad is selling.

"Aflac" uses the repetition of the duck advising the injured that they need this insurance -- relying on the silly quack sound of the company's name to nail the message on the nose.

"Verizon" is having great success following Suzi's Lemonade stand to international corporation because of ease of communication using Verizon's tools -- but the commercial, while engaging, and on-the-nose about communications, doesn't differentiate Verizon from AT&T.  Suzy might do as well with AT&T or another carrier, we can't tell from the commercial.  But I do remember Suzy and I do associate her with Verizon, so it's a success. 

Who can forget the "Energizer Bunny?" 

So advertisements have to be "on the nose."  If you're selling a better razor blade, show it in the garage in a puddle as months pass, and not rusting.  Show someone picking it up, putting it in a razor holder, and shaving with it -- no cuts.  If you're selling razor blades, show a razor blade.  Show how yours is different from Gillette's. 

That's on the nose. 

People, on the other hand, in real life, don't talk "on the nose."

One of the reasons most books on the craft of writing don't actually help new writers learn the craft is that such books are usually about the craft -- i.e. OFF the nose, off the topic. 

If you pick up a writing craft textbook, what do you expect to find inside?  What topic should it cover?

As I was learning this craft, (and even today) the topic I keep hoping to find inside "how to" books on writing is what you do with your mind to create a story others will enjoy.  You know about the craft or you wouldn't have found the book.  Now you want to know the craft itself.  You want to do it. 

You need the concepts, some examples, and some ways to isolate specific craft functions and practice them in isolation. 

That's like a piano student learning scales instead of whole musical compositions. 

After you learn the scale, you try a short, small, composition using that scale, and you perform the composition.  You don't start learning piano by writing your own compositions (most don't.)  You start learning by performing someone else's compositions. 

Writing is also a performing art, as I have said I learned from my first professional writing teacher, Alma Hill.

I've introduced you to some of the "scales" involved in writing: worldbuilding, conflict, theme, plot, characterization, etc.  And now we're working on "Chopsticks" our first composition, "Dialogue." 

What exactly is dialogue?  Where do you get it? 

In real life, women tend to keep their conversation (not dialogue; that's for fictional characters) farther away from the nose than men do.  Workplace interactions (men or women in the USA) tend to be more on the nose than household interactions.

Of all the topics people converse about, Relationship and especially the Love Relationship, usually stay the farthest off-the-nose.  They have to be off the nose if they are to communicate real, reliable, meaning.

Yep.  The way to be reliably understood is to avoid saying what you mean! 

In other words, in certain circumstances, to communicate you have to say what you mean, and in other circumstances you have to avoid saying what you mean in order to be understood. 

Writers have to take that variation in behavior into account when creating dialogue.

Characters will speak differently to each other depending on where they are and what they're doing, as well as on who they are, and who they are to each other.  Every line of dialogue you create is a synthesis  of all the techniques we've explored so far. 

Perhaps we should coin the term "dialogue-building" because writing dialogue is very much like worldbuilding. 

Dialogue is not a recording of real speech.  Dialogue is to real speech as a Japanese Brush Painting is to a Photograph.  Dialogue is emblematic of speech.  It's symbolic of speech. 

Ultimately, great dialogue gives the firm illusion of real speech. 

The line between a reader and a writer can easily be defined as the line between someone who perceives dialogue as speech, and someone who can see through that illusion to the gears-wheels-and-grease inside the dialogue that creates the illusion of speech.   

People speak to each other because they have something to say -- to that person. 

Many people get upset if you forward something they've written to you on to someone they don't even know (or worse, someone they don't like).  The reaction is, "I would have written it differently if I'd known so-and-so would see it."  People talk that way, too.  Think about how specific our phrasing is in terms of who we expect to see or hear. 

We put our real message, the real information we want another person to believe, in "subtext" not "text."  That's why "keywords" don't really work -- to say something important, you don't use the vocabulary of that subject.  If you use the vocabulary of that subject, then what you are saying will not be believed.  It's the text under the text (the body language, tone of voice, choice of off-topic vocabulary, allusions, associations) that carry the real information.  That tendency to use subtext (to talk with your hands, and blurt "you know" every few words) is the part of communication that a writer must emulate in dialogue but without the "you know" interjections.  (because "you know" you don't really know which is why I'm telling you, "you know?")   

That's why we phrase things we say in a special and different way for each person we talk to.  The "subtext" or "relationship" is different, so the wording must be different. 

Here are some of my posts mentioning subtext:





To maintain the illusion that your characters are real, you must take into account how they would talk differently to this character than to that character.  That variance is learned under the topic of "Characterization." 

Does this character talk to his boss differently than he talks to his father?  If yes, then he's one kind of character.  If no, then he's another. 

Dialogue is not two characters talking to each other -- it's the writer talking to the reader through these two hand-puppets called characters. 

The quality of the dialogue-writing is judged not on what the characters say to each other, but on how firmly the illusion is maintained that the writer does not exist, that the audience does not exist. 

In stagecraft, that's called the Fourth Wall.  It's the wall between the audience and the stage, the transparent wall we look through into this other world where the characters live, but that the characters see as a solid wall.

Break that illusion, and POOF - the rest of your illusions are gone.  All that worldbuilding and arduous suspension of disbelief POOF, GONE.

So how do you maintain this illusion that these characters are talking to each other, not the audience?  You use the set of techniques I've discussed in this blog as "Information Feed." 

Here are four posts specifically discussing this topic, but from other angles. 





And you need to employ all the tips and tricks from my posts on the Expository Lump.  You must never use Dialogue for either "Information Feed" or "Exposition" because that breaks the fourth-wall, the illusion that these characters are real people, the illusion that they're talking speech not dialogue. 

Here are some posts on Exposition:





Check out Part 11 of my series on Astrology Just For Writers which was posted on November 1, 2011

Here are some of my previous posts mentioning Dialogue:



Now, to the example that may illuminate all this for you, so you can practice this composition, this "Chopsticks" rendition.

Listen to a great writer (I'm not kidding, this is one terrific writer) play Chopsticks on his characters.

Here is Simon R. Green who has such complete mastery of all these techniques that he probably can't tell you how he does it. 

Here is a list of his more current  titles:

List of Simon R. Green titles

Here's a new series he's doing which uses such blatant "on the nose" dialogue in the most appropriately inappropriate places that you know it's done as broad comedy:

The opening chapter is a great example to learn from.

The characters are a field team of ghost hunters approaching a building and setting up their equipment. 

Green uses dialogue (which for these characters is workplace dialogue and should be "on the nose") to  give you all the worldbuilding exposition and feed you all sorts of information on the characters and their most recent adventures.  But he uses the "on the nose" dialogue to have the characters tell each other things the characters already know (a huge violation of all the rules of dialogue writing).

The genius in this piece is in the rhythm and pacing. 

Green has captured the very essence of the earliest science fiction style of awkward, blatant and even childish dialogue, and he's done it in such a way that you know he knows he's doing it to you on purpose.

He's playing with you, the reader, in a subtle way of buddies.  He telegraphs that he expects you to come into his world and play for a while, just for fun. 

Your Assignment, Should You Decide To Accept It  

Use the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon to get the first chapter (or download the Kindle sample). Or better yet, buy the book so you can finish reading the whole thing.  As soon as the characters finish with this building, they're off on yet another assignment that's even more dire.  So you can take this first chapter in isolation and work with it. 

REWRITE that first chapter, pulling all the dialogue off the nose, re-coding the exposition and information feed that's currently inside the dialogue into a combination of a) description, b) narrative c) internalized thoughts d) sensory impressions e) show-don't-tell imagery (you can add things and give the characters "business" with things) f) exposition.

Remember, the 4 kinds of text you find in fiction are:

a) dialogue
b) description
c) narrative
d) exposition

Ideally, each sentence or paragraph should be a smooth mixture of all of those.

Simon R. Green is one of the best writers working in this field today.  I couldn't have produced a piece this exemplary for you to practice on.  This will work for you as a dialogue "Chopsticks" composition to learn on only because it's so incredibly well done. 

This first chapter carefully avoids going "off the nose" even when it would have been easier. 

If you read his other books, (he has several dynamite series going) you'll see he does know how to do what you're just practicing here.   

It doesn't matter how good you already are at dialogue, you can benefit from this exercise.  I was doing this in my head as I read it, and laughing until my ribs hurt. 

Your assignment is to turn this archaic rhythm&pacing exercise into a much more "modern" sounding piece.  And if you can manage it, convert all the comedy into drama, or even horror, inject some Romance (not at all hard considering). 

Change the genre by shifting the dialogue off the nose.  Make up stuff about the characters, make them your own, just as you would if you were playing Chopsticks -- creating a unique rendition all your own just as you would if you were playing Chopsticks for the first time.

You know you have to throw away the result of this exercise -- don't plagiarize -- but play this Chopsticks composition.  Render it to the limits of your abilitiy, and you will grow. 

Just as if you were playing Chopsticks for the very first time, you really don't want anyone to hear or see you do this!  But the results will be visible in your writing forever. 

BTW: I just started reading another new Simon R. Green novel this one in his NIGHTSIDE series - gorgeously executed, solid storytelling, great work.   This is one writer worth studying carefully, on the whole, not just a few pages of one novel. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXhvQ7jRIFg is a video series on screenwriting, particularly mentioning dialogue.