Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dialogue: Another Lesson from Arthur Conan Doyle

Yep, you read that right: A lesson in dialogue from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who dredged up Sherlock Holmes from the depths of a quiet, unassuming genius mind.

Dialogue brings life to your characters. When you're writing descriptives, or going into plot details, the reader is listening to you, the author, rather than the characters. The reader is watching the characters silently move about the scene, advancing the story, interacting with their world, but the reader cannot hear the character, or listen to the character. In these scenes, the reader interacts with you, the author, and not with the character.

It's only during the dialogue scenes that the reader hears the character's voice. The reader interacts with the character here. The reader listens to the character. The reader is a willing participant, now, being dragged into the story via dialogue!

And it's amazing how few authors master dialogue. Even successful authors prefer their own voice over that of their characters. The author launches into page after page of descriptives, often referred to as Purple Prose, hogging the reader's mind and time for their own selfish needs.

Even authors who are good at dialogue often interrupt the dialogue with a constant barrage of items such as these:

o "Oh, my," she said, moving through the door and out into the yard, which was ...
o "No, it's over here," said Doug. Then he picked up the ...
o ..., etc.

You see how the author nags the reader with descriptives?

And don't get me started on adverbs and creative dialogue tags. For example, if you want me to throw your book across the room, add in this fluff:

o "I'm not going!" she exclaimed. ** Redundant! Your exclamation point means she exclaimed. **

o "I'm so tired," he exasperated. ** Same thing. Redundant. Tired means you're exasperated. Stop it, please God in Heaven, stop it. **

o "You're what?" she asked quizzically. ** Again, redundant, and in this case, irritating. Drop the adverb. **

So, I've just highlighted two bad dialogue habits:

1) Too many descriptives interrupting your dialogue. Let the characters talk!
2) Creative dialogue tags. They are fine in small, small doses, but limit yourself to "asked" and "said" as much as possible, or better yet, drop the tags altogether!

But, back to Doyle. Why did I mention him?

Because he was a master of dialogue!

Here's a fine example from The Man with the Twisted Lip:

'Now Watson,' said Holmes, as a tall dog-cart dashed up through the gloom, throwing out two golden tunnels of yellow light from its side-lanterns, 'you'll come with me, won't you?'

'If I can be of use.'

'Oh, a trusty comrade is always of use. And a chronicler still more so. My room at the Cedars is a double-bedded one.'

'The Cedars?'

'Yes; that is Mr St Clair's house. I am staying there while I conduct the inquiry.'

'Where is it, then?'

'Near Lee, in Kent. We have a seven-mile drive before us.'

'But I am all in the dark.'

'Of course you are. You'll know all about it presently. Jump up here! All right, John, we shall not need you. Here's half-a-crown. Look out for me tomorrow about eleven. Give her her head! So long, then!'

He flicked the horse with his whip, and we dashed away...

Freaking GENIUS!

Do you see it? You, the reader, are standing next to Holmes and Watson, climbing into the horse carriage with them and dashing away!

Doyle didn't constantly repeat "..., said Holmes" and "..., said Watson" over and over.

Doyle didn't interrupt the dialogue to describe the setting. Instead, he set up the scene, ran his dialogue, and then concluded the scene.

He used the dialogue to do these things, specifically:

1) Determine where Holmes was lodged, and where it was located.
2) Determine the distance of the drive to his lodge.
3) Set up the next scene, which will be a description of the case.
4) Release the carriage driver, John.
5) Set the horses for the fast trip.

So not only did Doyle use dialogue to let the reader interact with the characters, but he used the same dialogue to advance the story, fill in the scene, and add a sense of urgency to the story.

When you're looking for a fine example of a master of dialogue, look to the Holmes series, and minimize your dialogue tags. Dialogue is a powerful tool. Learn to use it!

- Eric

No comments: