Be Your Own Editor - Part III

by Alex Keegan


In the past two months we've talked about editing for early impact of the right kind, and we've talked about adding power, about rhythm and music and writing tighter. Now we look at dialogue.

In my article, "Dialogue, A Few Sins, and a Sinner" in the IWJ, I pointed up some of the classic errors of dialogue. Essentially, the first pass when editing dialogue is to seek out those sins, sinner, and correct thyself.

A word of caution here. One piece of advice writers like me give concerns speech tags. We often say don't say pleaded, whimpered, whispered, retorted, try to either use no speech tag or the almost-invisible "said". This is good advice, but it was brought to my notice very recently that many light women's magazine stories are laced with every speech-tag imaginable and, that said, is the rare tag.

I've written five crime books and I now write short stories which are either "serious general fiction" or literary, depending on your definition. So, when you read the comments I make on writing, remember that's where I'm coming from. If you're aiming at the coffee-break short-story with a twist in the tail, check out the market. They might want thirty-three speech-tags to the square inch. Me, I'd rather die.

An old screenwriting tip is to look at dialogue on the page and ask if, merely from the dialogue you can distinguish the characters. In your prose, without the tags, could you pick out each protagonist?

Truth is there's one writer writing, one filter, and it's very easy to slip into writing most dialogue with the same rhythm, the same basic vocabulary, the same attitude. Carried away with our own inner images of the story and the characters, we often unconsciously embellish what is on the page with our inner knowledge and falsely see a differentiation that's not there. When we edit, we should presume that the differences between speakers are not clear and look to see if we can enhance them using word-choices, character speech-tics, sentence length and so on. Dialogue can deepen character.

I've said before that when I'm selecting as an editor or judging for a competition, the feel and music of a piece have a strong effect on my opinion. Rhythm and smoothness on their own are not enough for a hit, but lack of that essential smooth readability can cause a rejection.

In dialogue the same issues arise (at least for me). It's important that the reader is drawn in and lulled into the dream which is fiction, not jerked out of it, shattering the illusions we have strived so hard to create.

There are two particular discords I often see (or hear). The first is monotony, a pattern of similarity in each delivered speech, where line after line of dialogue is the same shape and length almost like a iambic pentameter in poetry.

"I'm going to go now, right now," Jill said.

"It's probably for the best if you do," Jack replied.

"There's no point in trying to stop me," Jill added.

"I know, and I won't try to stop you," Jack said.

What we have is something mechanical with no joy or lift or variety. It's so easy to parody this and read it in a monotone and yet this kind of dialogue is very common. I know in my own writing I have a tendency to write dialogue which always fits on one line. What I have to do is recognise this tendency and work through either as I'm writing or in a redraft to condense, refine, to shorten and lengthen.

Jill stood up. "I'm going to go now, right now." She said, "and there's no point in trying to stop me."

"It's probably for the best," Jack said softly. "I won't try to stop you."

Remember, too, to consider the overall musical tone. Is this to be a sad, angry or humorous scene? The rhythms, as well as the words, should match.

Just check out some of your work to see if you have this same habit. It's so commonplace that I'd suggest it's a universal tendency. When I read submissions I often think that writers merely throw dialogue into their stories like a white-space break. Often the dialogue is cheap and ordinary compared to the narrative which has often been worked at more.

The second discordant note often struck is what I have come to call a writer's "tic" like a nervous cough, or repeatedly saying "you know" when you converse. Many organisations video their salespeople to spot these mannerisms, and most victims are surprised to find they have these quirks. In business life, some of these are filtered out, on paper they can become more noticeable until they scream at the reader and interfere with the absorption of story. Here's a tic.

"There's no way it can be done," Tom muttered. He walked to the window.

"We have to find a way, Tom," Mary said. She picked up the gun.

"How, what can we do?" Tom said desperately. He stared into the street.

"If Jack was to have an accident..." Mary said slowly. She toyed with the letter-knife.

Every single snippet of dialogue is followed by a tiny action. This is not mixing and strengthening the dialogue, adding movement and place, it's a tic, too repetitive, too much, too often, too noticeable. Instead, why not:

Tom walked to the window and stared out. "There's no way it can be done," he said, "No way…"

"We have to find a way, Mary said.

Tom didn't turn round, almost as if he knew what Mary would say if he did. "How, what can we do?" he whispered, desperation rising in his voice. A huge barge slugged by on the river.

When Mary didn't answer, Tom turned round. Mary had Jack's letter-knife and was turning it over and over in her hands. When she finally spoke it was with a smile which chilled the room. "If Jack was to have an accident…" she said softly.

Tics are dangerous, often unseen by the writer, sometimes not picked up specifically by the reader and clearly noted, but nevertheless somehow undermining the story. Sometimes we stop reading or an editor says no without knowing precisely why. Maybe it's same dialogue, maybe it's a tic like the one above.

To test for tics, analyse your dialogue. Is it speech, small action, speech, small action, speech, small action? Maybe you put the action first, followed by speech and then do it again, and again. Trust me, this is commonplace.

Always remember that when the writing is doing things to us, but we forget we are reading, then the story is working well. If we become aware of the way the words are laid before us, become aware of the author at the keyboard, we are approaching dangerous territory.

We should ensure characters have differentiating character in their speeches, we should ensure that the dialogue we write has variety, breaths, pauses, sharp interjections, slightly longer speeches, and we should avoid falling into repeating dialogue-narrative patterns.

All these elements refer to smoothness and author-invisibility, but what about the content of dialogue, it's meaning, the work it is doing?

It's a commonplace to see dialogue which simply does nothing, which appears to fill space, to pass time. The hero has to leave the girl for a while and he says adios, she says be careful, he says he will, she says good, he says he loves her, she says she loves him, he says OK, goodbye and she says goodbye, and...well, you get the picture.

The cure is easy. Work through your draft with the ruthless intention of cutting all the dialogue. OK, just 90%, OK 80%... TEST your dialogue just like you test your narrative and description. Why are these words here, what are they doing? Are they developing character, advancing the plot or revealing crucial information to the reader? If not, can you cut it without harming the story? If a cut hurts, can an extra word somewhere else deal with the problem?

One piece of advice I give to students is to cut, cut, cut a story until they have found the core, then, as they need to, add just enough words to smooth the language, remove ambiguities, add emphases. Now, because they are saying everything economically they have improved pace and power. Some students do this and then interspersed with this powerful, tight writing is loose, wishy-washy chat from their characters!

Watch for this. How often as writers do we breathe a sigh of relief when we reach a dialogue section? Dialogue, that's just people talking, right? Easy!

Yes, ordinary dialogue is easy. But good, powerful, three-dimensional dialogue is a little harder. Dialogue which has an extra ring to it, dialogue which differentiates characters, reflects mood (of individuals and the story's progress), conveys extra information, subtly furthers the writer's agenda, that's a bit harder.

Avoid the bland, the everyday, the mundane, the same, the cliché. Just take a good hard look at your dialogue and see how many of the characters talk like robots or are boring and flat. Give them life, originality. Look to be the writer who adds phrases to the language. "Here's looking at you pal." "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Even, "I'll be back!"

In the villages all down this valley, from Senghennydd down to Caerphilly, they call me Ernie the Egg.

Bridie something happened today and I want to tell you. well write it on a letter and stick it in the tin the one for letters that I dont want to get sensored I mean. but tell you anyway. if anything happens they send you a fellah's tin.

I always think, you know, it's like being on stage. You have to look your best. You come in from the wings and there's your audience and straight away, you're in the spotlight, you can't hide, and every night you have to perform, no matter what. You've been short-changed on the maintenance again and the kids need new shoes, maybe it's time of the month and you're feeling shit, but you have to do it, you do, look good for the punters. It's yer job.

One last thought on dialogue. How much is enough, how much is too much? George V. Higgins in The Death of Eddie Coyle wrote a whole novel which was almost completely dialogue, and although it's a master at work, there are times when the book cried out for just a line or two of narrative.

Dialogue can open up a story and give a sense of air and space. Remember too, that sometimes a portion of dialogue can be narrated for a change of pace or a rest, like here in my story "Meredith Toop Evans and Ernie the Egg," recently picked up by Atlantic Monthly.

Our district was the Bottanic and we were working the level the miners called Beck's Heading. As the blast roared through, the boys loading trucks were all blown down and tumbled in the wind, none of them breathing, not one ever to be a father. By rights I was another dead boy but Toop had just called me under to help loose some coal. But for us under, by chance, and some of the colliers also under, there was only the sudden emptiness of air, and a howl was all for us, like a wounded monster that rushed past us and away into the lampless dark.

I may have fainted, I do not know, but my next recollection was the close breath of spearmint and the voice of Toop calming me, telling me to be still.

I said, "Toop, what has happened, Toop?" and he told me that there had been a terrific explosion and many were surely killed.

"And we must go out, boy, and walk."

We crawled out from under. Even now there were thuds and bangs distant, and quick roars of air, like wild rushes of Hell. But then the air became still and we heard boys crying, and men groaning and it was hopeless, confusion, awful, and I was frightened almost dumb. But then I felt Toop's huge hand on my shoulder, and his rough, dirty fingers touching my face. He came close, so close I smelt his chew.

"We must walk," he said. "And we must not stop walking."

"Yes, Toop," I said.

"Give me your hand," he said.

And I felt Toop turn his back, then my hand was on his shoulder, taken by his and laid on him like an epaulette, his hand still on mine for comfort, he understood me so well. Then he bade me be silent, and we waited.

Be deliberate quiet for ten seconds against your nature. It is a long time. Do much the same and wait for half a minute, wait longer. That is an eternity. After a while I thought I would burst from my fear.

"Toop?" I said.

"Shush, boy," he said.

We waited, but the darkness, the faint crying, were too much and I spoke again. "Toop?"

Toop did not speak, but I know he turned round. For I felt his fists, now open hands, take my head, my face to his, and I felt his lips on my forehead, not a kiss, but as if Toop was breathing some of his hugeness into me. Very quiet he was. He said, "Boy, be bigger now for we are suffocating, and there are men here who do not know what to do."

Then he let me go and called out.

"I am Toop Evans, Newbridge," he said, big and definite, like a lighthouse blows its horn to guide ships home. "Shout out, one by one, your name, your stall and are you injured. Is David Thomas spared?"

Elmore Leonard writes some great dialogue and he's always worth a read just to see what can be revealed subtly with a few words. This is a short extract from Cat Chaser.

He filled in another line of information about himself, looked up and stared directly at Moran, deadpan.

"This is the Coconut Palms Resort Apartments. Is that correct?"

"That's correct," Moran said, just as dry.

Nolen Tyler's gaze shifted to the inside window of the office that looked out toward the Atlantic Ocean, past the oval-shaped pool and empty lounge chairs. His sleepy eyes turned to Moran.

"Then why don't I see any palm trees?"

"Some bugs ate 'em," Moran said. "I had to have six trees removed."

"It doesn't bother you, " Nolen Tyler said, "you call this place the Coconut Palms there isn't a single palm-tree out there? Isn't that false advertising?"

"The high-rise on the south side of us, nine stories, is called The Nautilus, "Moran said, "but I don't think it's a submarine. The one on the other side, it's ten stories, is the Aurora. Tell me if you think it looks like a radiant glow in the upper atmosphere. That'll be thirty dollars. You're in number five, right next to my office."

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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