Dialogue – a lesson with Fred and Mary
Yes, I’ve done this before, but I found while teaching a workshop that I couldn’t find it in the archives, and anyway, I’ll do it again from a different angle and maybe it will stay in people’s heads. It really is n many ways, when it comes to writing, what separates the pros from the amateurs. I mean, it’s not the only thing, but it is often the last to fall into place and while you’re doing this the amateur way it will slow the rhythm of your work and gum up the machinery of your narrative even if everything else is professional. On the other hand, professionally rendered dialogue covers a multitude of sins.
A caveat. You can – and should, if you have any interest – look at it and figure out what I’m doing (since it’s a demonstration lesson) BUT unless you’re one of very few people (I’ve met a couple) who can learn a skill by reading the instructions, you won’t know this and start using it until you practice it. It is something that becomes an habit of mind and/or fingers.
“Dialogue,” Mary said.
“Yes?” Fred asked.
“How does one do it?” Mary said.
She looked up at him, her blue eyes filled with anguish. Around her the room fell deathly silent.
“By doing it, mostly,” Fred said.
“Yes, but the tags,” Mary said. “Don’t you get tired of saying said and said and said and said. I mean I know
they say it’s invisible. But after a while it grates on my nerves.”
“Not really,” Fred said. “It is still preferable to admitted, exclaimed, exhorted or… ejaculated.”
“That’s not what you sa– Oh, you mean as a dialogue tag,” Mary said. “But it gets rather like watching a ping-pong match, doesn’t it?”
“Fine.” Fred smiled. He winked at Mary. “Then do it with action tags. You know, the sort of thing that gives your characters a body and shows that they’re in a physical world. Know what I mean.”
Mary blushed. She tugged her neckline closed and looked away. “Sort of. You mean, they can do things in the middle of the conversation?”
“Sure.” Fred grinned broadly. “Though frankly, if you only have two people talking, you really don’t need to tag the dialogue except to show emotion or other things not conveyed in the dialogue.”
“Not tag… You mean, not say who said it?” Mary asked.
“Yeah, if you only have two people talking, and you tag the initial one, you only have to tag every other one if that.”
“But don’t people lose track eventually?”
“Of course, that is when you have an action tag.”
Mary rose from the table, walked to the window and looked out at the flower garden. “You mean like this?” she asked.
“Like that,” Fred said. “Is a good action tag.” He got up and went to stand beside her, at the window. “Mary, I’ve been meaning to tell you, all these months together, in the writing group, I…”
“Yes, Fred?” She turned to look up at him.
“I love your clean cut sentences; the way you eschew passive verbs. I love your action sequences and how they chain on each other to a peak of emotional surrender. I pine for your sample chapters, and I don’t think I could live without your short stories.” He looked down at her, his eyes filled with mute inquiry.
Mary sighed and smiled, and wiped her own moist eyes. “Yes, Fred,” she said. “I will marry you.”