0 Jeff Salyards | Monthly Archive | March
Archive | March, 2014

Speak From the Heart. Or Gut. Or Spleen.

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I think it’s important to be self-aware as a writer, identify your strengths and weaknesses and actively try to improve with every project, getting better at the stuff you are good at and really trying to develop those skills that are lacking. I have plenty of things I need to work on, but one thing I can usually fall back on is dialogue. Not saying I’m Tom Stoppard or anything, but I usually feel pretty confident that my dialogue at least won’t be abysmal. And I have to give a lot of credit to Ivan Davidson (aka “Mr. D.”). He was one of my favorite professors at Knox, teaching drama, theatre history, acting, playwrighting, directing. On top of being a wonderful professor, he is an amazing person and routinely brought out the best in me, even when I slacked off in other classes and did my best to be an assclown.

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I loved Mr. D.’s playwrighting class, and it really helped refine any skill I had at writing dialogue. And while I learned a ton, several things he imparted always stuck with me.

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1. Read every line of dialogue out loud. This is critical for plays and screenplays when the lines are intended to be spoken, but still really useful for fiction too. You catch all kinds of awkward construction and clunkers when you read the lines out loud (true for exposition too, but it really magnifies goofy lines of dialogue that look awesome on the page and somehow sound like hot garbage aloud).

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2. If you block off the character’s name or identifying tags on the page (as an exercise, not permanently), you should still be able to always (or most of the time) immediately tell who is speaking. You want to try to give each character a distinctive patter, quirks and tendencies and rhythms and particular cadence or vocabulary, something that distinguishes them.

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Some masters of dialogue excel at really stylized language (Edward Albee’s hyper-articulate characters spring to mind, or on the other end, David Mamet’s staccato bullet poetry), and others create something that has the illusion of being natural and authentic. I say illusion because real dialogue is often chaotic, confusing, repetitious, or hopelessly broken, and yet people still manage to communicate. It’s amazing, really. Read a transcript sometime of unscripted conversation—it can be a nightmare; half the time it doesn’t make any damn sense at all, or it’s dull. In plays and fiction, even if you are trying to capture that kind of naturalistic flavor, it usually has to be distilled so you don’t lose your audience of put them to sleep. But no matter what the style, cover up the character’s names and see if you can figure out who is who. If several characters easily blend together, you probably have more work to do.

3. Dialogue is ACTION (another writer from that class just reminding me of this one!). It shouldn’t just serve as telling stories of things that shaped the characters or to unspool exposition, or a way of just conveying information. Dialogue should propel the immediate here and now; characters want something—they’re trying to encourage, undermine, sway, console, brutalize, outsmart, or seduce each other, and dialogue should DO that. A plot and story are only as good as the tension and conflict, and this isn’t just people hitting each other in the face or someone getting junk punched in the man business—dialogue can be vicious or scintillating as characters with irreconcilable agendas square off.

4. Along the same lines, make dialogue do double (or triple) duty. Sure, it might be delivering some exposition, or revealing character, or even trying to accomplish something, right here and now (see above), but it can (and should!) hit more than one note at once. Maybe it’s foreshadowing, or slyly giving some subtext or hints of all the stuff that be boiling just under the surface. Maybe it appears to be providing some backstory when it’s also giving you a glimpse of things that will ignite in the third act (or last chapter). Sort of a subset of the Chekhov’s Gun principle—while you can mention something innocuous that doesn’t bear fruit later in the text, you can also plant seeds that lead to a crazy crop of holyhell leaf later on.

Mr. D.’s influence extended a lot further than anything I learned in class—he impacted me as a person as much if not more than he did as a student—but anytime anyone compliments me on the dialogue in my writing, I always think how lucky and grateful I am that I took his playwrighting courses.

Streams: Crossed

I got some great entries in the Crossing the Streams contest, and was happy to read several action sequence nominations from books and films I hadn’t read before. Thanks to everyone who entered. Great suggestions!

I will announce the two winners tomorrow and reach out to let them know, and find out which book they wanted. And as noted, the winners will be in the mix for the Super Duper Uber Massive sweepstakes for a whole bunch of free books.

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