EVERYTHING IS DIALOGUE
I don’t just mean two people in a book talking, and it being received in written down form.
By ‘Everything is dialogue’, I mean that if your writing has the sense of different voices intruding on one another – not always monologuing, not always singing in the same key – it will gain a new energy and sense of space. Your prose need not always agree with itself.
If you look up ‘dialogue’ in the dictionary, you can come away with a vaguer idea than the one you probably have right now.
By dialogue I mean, the stuff on the page in a story that usually appears between inverted commas, single or double.
Literary Aside. Some writers, from James Joyce onwards, have favoured a single dash, indented, on the left side of the page, to indicate speech. This is a fine way of doing dialogue, but is more likely to confuse the reader if you’re unsure about what you’re doing.
Aside. Italics are for amateurs. If you put your dialogue not only in inverted commas but italics, you will look insecure – you’re doubling up what you do to indicate speech. Not necessary. Similarly, if you do all your dialogue without inverted commas but by using italicization, you make it impossible for you to use italics elsewhere in the story, to suggest emphasis or words in a foreign language or to give the title of a book or film.
I’ll say a little later on about funky and unfunky texts. Italics tend to funk up a text but to no good end.
A lot of dialogue is clunky. Writers who are wonderful with description can be awful as soon as they need to get a person to order a cup of coffee.
It is possible to write without dialogue, but this will tend to create gapless writing. (Avoid gapless writing unless you’re on top of gappy writing.)
DEFINITELY NOT YOU
Exercise: Make up a pseudonym for a writer who definitely isn’t you. Not you at all. Make up a pseudonym for a really bad writer. A writer who definitely isn’t you. Nowhere near.
Definition: By pseudonym I mean a pen name, or more accurately a disguise on the page.
Explanation: I’d like you to take the pressure off yourself. You don’t always have to be you, you don’t always have to try your very best, and you certainly don’t always have to stand alongside what you’ve written, pointing at it, and saying, This is mine – I take full responsibility for it.
Be assured, as soon as you have finished this exercise, you can rip up the page or delete the file. No-one need ever read the words you’re about – as your pseudonym – to write.
The pseudonym you choose needs to be made up – you can’t just pick Dan Brown – and it needs to sound like it belongs to a bad writer who does a particularly bad kind of writing.
Mr But: What do you mean by bad writing? You can’t go around saying stuff like that without qualifying it.
Answer: In this case I mean only ‘Writing that you think is bad.’ If you think non-genre writing, the sort that wins prestigious literary prizes, is bad writing, then make your pseudonym fit for that. If you think Warhammer books are bad, make up a Warhammer pseudonym.
Exercise: At the top of a blank page, write the words THIS PIECE OF DIALOGUE IS BY… and then your pseudonym.
Exercise continued: At the bottom of the same page, sign with your pseudonym’s signature. With a flourish.
Exercise concluded: Now, on this page, that is no longer owned by you, I would like you – as your pseudonym – to write dialogue that is definitely bad in as many ways as you can think of. Try to make it the the worst dialogue the world has ever seen.
Notes: You should write this dialogue as you would in a story or a novel, not just as unattributed lines of speech, or as play dialogue with names down the left margin followed by colons and what those people say.
There’s no need to go wild and describe the pattern on the wallpaper of the room they’re in, or the clouds in they sky above them, but a little bit of scene setting as part of the dialogue might be useful
Bear in mind that a response does not always have to be verbal – it could be good to say ‘He shrugged’ or ‘She said nothing.’
YOU’VE JOURNEYED THROUGH THE WORST, AND FINISHED
Wasn’t that fun? I hope that was fun – and I hope, once you got going, you found it easy. Certainly, and this is where you can learn something important – certainly, I guess, you found it easier than if I had done the following:
Asked you to write at the top of the page THIS PIECE OF DIALOGUE IS BY and then your name. Had I told you to sign, with your own signature, at the bottom of the page. And most of all, insisted that – after you had finished with the exercise – you immediately took the page and showed it to another person. One you respect. With the words, ‘I’ve just written this. I think it’s really good. Tell me what you think. Honestly.’
All of these conditions would have made doing the exercise harder, wouldn’t they? All of them would have made it more self-conscious and less fun.
But all these conditions are as nothing when compared to the overall aim.
Imagine how difficult, how impossible the exercise would have been if instead of asking you to write the worst dialogue the world has ever seen I had, seriously, with no humour, asked you – here and now – to write the best dialogue the world has ever seen.
Yet all of these conditions are the conditions that most writers impose upon themselves.
Each of the things I asked you to do stands for something that can make writing more difficult.
Owning it, showing it and straining at every moment to make it the best you possibly can possibly.
I would like you to stop doing all these things.
None of your writing is owned until you choose to own it, and you only choose to own it when you choose to show it as yours.
Until then, the purpose of the writing is not to be as good as your writing can possibly be but to be the best step you can take, at every stage, towards you becoming a better writer.
Sometimes, whisper it, this will involve writing deliberately badly – or deliberately worse than you otherwise could.
Story-start. Think back. Did your story end when you began to think of it as yours, or began to think of the moment someone else might read it or comment upon it, or begin to think it wasn’t as good as some other piece of writing you remembered you’d written in the past or imagined yourself writing in future.
Stop it – owning, showing, and striving.
From now on your aim isn’t to write as well as you can but to write with energy. I would guess that your deliberately bad dialogue has more energy than any of the dialogue in your story-start. (Does you story-start have dialogue?)
Let the writing do the writing.
Before we move on from this, to look for closely at dialogue, I’d like you to do something that isn’t really an exercise, but something both more serious and more silly than that. I’d like you to write down three pseudonyms for writers you think might be good writers.
All these three possible writers are now there for you to use, in future. You can write as one or alternately as all of them for the rest of the exercises in this book, or secretly for the rest of your writing life.
That’s all until next time.