Thursday, June 23, 2011

V. Mark Covington- the Stage vs the Page

Intro both plays and novels, dialogue must fit in with the story smoothly, it must suit the character's personality and it must be easily understood by the reader or the audience. All dialogue has to have a purpose. It shouldn’t be there just for the sake of having your characters talk. In plays practically the entire story is carried out on the shoulders of the dialogue and the non-verbal cues of the actors. In novels you can use narration to describe the scenery, the thoughts and feelings of the characters, but dialogue can be much more effective tool for description. The difference between narration and dialogue is the difference between a friend telling us about the movie they saw this past weekend and hearing a robot read the generic synopsis of the movie. We’re more likely to listen to our friend’s version, aren’t we?

All dialogue needs to have a reason. The words have to reveal something to the reader/audience.

Use dialogue to:

• Reveal Characters- Plays rely on dialogue to reveal characters, relationships, etc. Novels should also use dialogue as much as possible to reveal your character’s uniqueness. It’s more fun to overhear two people talking about someone’s character traits then for a narrator to tell you about them.

• Tell the Backstory - Plays use dialogue to tell the backstory, what happened before that brought the characters to this point in time. In novels it is often tempting to dump a lot of backstory on the reader all at once, especially in the first chapter. It is much more effective to thread the backstory through the plot and subplot, revealing a little at a time. Also, try to avoid giving out a lot of backstory in the first chapter. The first chapter is all about action and suspense, drawing the reader into the story so they can’t put the book down.

• Show Conflict - Plays use dialogue to establish conflict, to add intrigue, create mystery. In a play this should be done in the first 3 minutes. In novels dialogue is an effective tool to lead up to and accentuate the conflict. The sooner you relay the nature of the overriding conflict to the reader the better, usually on the first page, if not the first paragraph.

• Describe the Scene - Plays have sets, and a set can depict a very real place, a kitchen, a ship, a trailer park. The set can have details that reveal the story, an empty liquor bottle, an unmade bed, a crime scene outline of a body. Novels have to use either narration or dialogue to describe the scene, (place, time of day, weather, etc). Use dialogue rather than narration whenever possible to describe, or supplement, the description of the scene;

Example:“Go on and have a seat on that old couch, don’t mind the dog hair, and that wet spot is just from tears.

(from this we know the couch is old, and probably in rough shape which gives us a clue about the rest of the house. We also know that the character has or had a dog and somebody has been crying on the couch. You have a mental picture, but you want to know more. Who has been crying, where is the dog. Is the dog dead, is that why the person is crying?)

• Describe the Action - Show don’t tell. This is easy in plays, you have actors constantly moving about on stage, showing the audience what his happening, and good actors have a myriad of ways to showing thoughts, emotions, etc through non-verbal cues. In novels you have to use words. So try to use words that convey as much action as possible instead of tag lines. (she said, he said). While dialogue can be informational, a way to develop a character or reveal the plot, it is emphatically not conversational, any more than war or sex or prayer is conversational. Dialogue is character, and character feeds the plot. Above all, dialogue should be linked to visual action. We tend to process more visual information (55%) than vocal (38%) or written (7%). But if the written word describes visual action it increases the likelihood that the information will be processed.

Example: “I won’t be a part of that.” John took a step back, arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head emphatically.

(We don’t have to say “John said.” By following the statement with John’s action the reader knows it’s John and the words match the action).

• Establish Voice – Voice is that sense there’s a person behind the words. This is easy in plays, the lights, action and dialogue will usually focus on one person at a time. This is the person who’s eyes through which the reader/audience sees, hears, feels everything in the story. Try to make a hard demarcation when you switch voice in a novel. If you constantly jump from voice to voice (head hopping) it can confuse the reader. You can use the idiosyncrasies of your characters (language, gestures, perspective) to establish and personalize the character’s voice so the reader will recognize from who’s perspective the story is being told at a given time.

• Reinforce non-verbal cues - Actors constantly use non-verbal cues, gestures, eye movement, facial expressions. Weave these into your novel through the action that follows dialogue. Give your character a “tell” (A tell is a poker term that describes a gesture, a hand movement, facial expression, something that gives a clue to what cards they are holding, are they bluffing, etc). In 2012 Montezuma’s Revenge I had one of my characters, Agent Sanchez, suck on a bullet as a non-smoking aid. I used that bullet as a weathervane for his non-verbal thoughts. When he was nervous he popped the bullet into his mouth and sucked on it, when shocked, he dropped it out of his mouth, when he was bored or thoughtful it played across his lips, etc.

o One trick for creating non-verbal cues for your characters is to have each character deliver an opening speech to you. Visualize him or her on the stage giving a verbal autobiography, let them vent their frustration, talk about their wishes, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. Now, in your mind’s eye watch what they are doing with their hands when they are talking. Look at their facial expressions, eyebrows, posture, etc. Use these to give your characters depth throughout the novel.

• Establish Authenticity - Good written dialogue should mimic actual speech and dialect – but only use a dialect if you are well versed in the dialect and it doesn’t come across as forced. In my play Shakespeare in the Trailer Park, I used Elizabethan/Southern because I grew up in Richmond, Virginia using a southern dialect. My grandparents still used old English words so this was not that much of a stretch. (I did fail a lot of spelling tests though spelling words like colour and shoppe). Avoid using stereotypes, clich├ęs or accents too much. The dialogue should be authentic to the character, a farmer losing his farm isn’t going to go into a long speech about the importance of agriculture to the economy. He is going to talk simply. He is more likely to say:

"I tell you Myrtle, it’s all just gettin’ to be too much for me. One day soon the bank is going to swoop in here and snatch this place right from under us.”

Other things to remember when using dialogue in both the theater and in the novel:

• Less is More – Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Dorothy parker added “and lingerie.” Mark Twain once said “Never say metropolis when you can say city.” The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. This is so applicable to stage plays that it is worth committing to memory. Brevity and clarity are keys of writing good dialogue.

o For plays brevity is important to assure the actors can utter the words effortlessly and that the audience can understand what is being said easily. You don’t want the audience to think about what a sentence means for so long that the play has moved on to the next scene.

For example, one of the original lines in Shakespeare in the Trailer Park, was “Dry as a tumbleweed dipped in alum and rolled in a blue law.” It was painful watching the audience try to figure this out while the actors moved on to the next scene, and then to the next act. I changed it to “dry as a funeral drum.”

o In novels you can be a little more verbose but don’t overdo it. For example, it is generally known that the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," which actually covers a lot of imagery. However, that is only part of the opening sentence, which continues for a total of 119 words and is also the opening paragraph.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….

Can you see an audience sitting still for this?

• Constantly fill your Toolbox –Develop skills in using dialogue by exposing yourself to different types of media, plays, screenplays, novels, etc. I have written novels, plays television commercials and restaurant reviews and learned something new each time. Also, read a variety of genres to pick up tips on the subtleties of dialogue in that genre and how they differ from the others. Sci fi dialogue will be very different from romance or historical fiction. Mix genres, read some sci-fi, steam punk, southern gothic, humor, westerns. Different authors use different devices. Build your toolbox. When the only tool you have is a hammer all your problems begin to look like nails so the more tools you have better a builder of books you will be.