Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dialogue Experiment

Recently I started thinking about the difference between writing something to be performed and writing something to be read. Aside from a bit of stage directions a play is largely about dialogue and a movie is as much about scenery and action as it is about speaking.  Pondering this I wondered if I could separate the dialogue from the narrative and what sort of story would evolve.

In most of my stories the dialogue, exposition, and reflections appear, but the inner voice of the narrator predominates.  I seldom use the omniscient viewpoint. So, for my experiment I excluded soliloquies and concentrated on only conversations or asides, at least, as a first draft.

Before I began I thought about the general arc of the plot; where I wanted to end up and the steps necessary to get there. This part was not too different from my normal practice of blocking a first draft.  At this point I wasn't worried about the development of the tension or where the emotional highs and lows might be.  Just getting the scenes and players set was all I needed before I began.

After setting one scene in my head I began writing the conversations. This was harder than expected because I kept wanted to inject adverbs and said-isms to denote emotions or attitudes. This had the benefit of making me convey those in the words themselves rather than describe or interpret them for the reader. No surprisingly this resulting in rather tight dialogue, a rapid back-and-forth patter.  It also forced me to make the voices distinct enough to convey personality and social background.  The resulting draft was six scenes of about three thousand words of "pure" dialogue.

The second thing to do was write the surrounding narrative - describing the physical surroundings, appearances, and time sequence of each scene.  This was not hard and only added another thousand words since there were only three (3) locations where all the action took place.

That done, I had to write the internal voice of the POV character; his reactions to the conversations, internal debates, reflections on things preceding the story and those currently taking place. The hardest part of this was the epiphany and denouement where he finally grasps the consequences of what he had done and the path he must now take.  This added another three thousand words.

Finally, I had to do the nasty writer bits - tying the scenes together, inserting gracious transitions, and tweaking the dialogue a bit more to get it right.  Five or six hundred works added at most, and probably a thousand or more adjustments to the text that tightened the pace. I probably wrote and threw away two thousand words at least in the entire process.

The take away on this experiement is that it is possible to write a story this way, but it isn't as easy as my normal idiosyncratic method. The dialogue does seem more authentic, but that might only be a subjective judgement.  The same comment on the undercurrent of motivation and observation.  Neither did the plot emerge any more easily. All in all this did not turn out to be the shortcut I'd hoped for.

I'd hate to write a novel this way.


  1. "I could sail a f*cking bathtub on the sun if you pay me enough money..." One of your best lines of dialogue, told us pages worth of what we needed to know about the character.

    1. Thanks Jeff, I've always considered it one of my best lines.


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