Monday, August 9, 2010

Too much dialogue

For work related reasons I'm re-reading Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction, a book I highly recommend. (More practically oriented than most rah-rah writing guides. If you're beyond need encouragement and are ready for advice, this is a great guide.) One section that never sunk in before is resonating with me now -- to beware of too much dialogue.

I knew this in a less conscious way from my first book. After writing a scene, I would look at it and have an uneasy feeling about how much dialogue was in it. It didn't seem quite right, though I couldn't explain why. The rewrites and revisions happened blindly without really understanding what I needed to do about the seeming excess of dialogue, and eventually I got it fixed, but it was like punching my way out of a paper bag.

One, as Burroway makes clear, dialogue should do more than one thing at a time -- to convey the literal meaning of the words plus something else like complicating the story or characterization. She doesn't say this, but I think it's implied: dialogue that drags on and on tends to be dialogue only doing one thing.

Two, she talks about how dialogue loses its power after awhile, so you want to save it for what is key to have in the character's voice. Another way of thinking about is the relationship between voice and reader energy. It's the narrator's voice that the reader has signed on for and invested themselves in. It takes reader energy to switch your attention from that voice to a character's voice. (Even if it's first-person narration, that narrator narrates in a voice somewhat different from self that they quote in the dialogue.) You want to ask the reader to leave the narrator's voice only when they're going to get some energy back in the form of important developments.

This is on my mind now because as I draft my current project, I find myself writing pages and pages of dialogue, and I d0 so with a sick feeling that it all will have to be thrown out later. I realize that what I'm doing isn't so much writing -- not even in the sense of drafting -- as daydreaming on paper. I don't really know what's happening in a scene, so I imagine the two characters talking to each other and write down what they would say. It's like a real-time transcript. In other words, this is another symptom of the key problem I keep talking about here -- that I don't know the story. A real-time transcript is the opposite of a story.

Transcribing in this way may be a way of finding a story. (And maybe not. It feels like sorting at random through all the sand on the beach.) But it's not really writing. I think maybe my mantra of "just add sentences" might be keeping me stuck in a spot that is not very productive.

Word count update: Almost no work done last week because of deadlines on paying work. A little bit of work this morning, but no more is expected this week because of a family trip. I have 32,000 words now, but that has to be heavily discounted, as explained before.

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