Monday, August 04, 2008

Tone Deaf? Show Me The Melody

Last week, we looked at a simple exchange of dialog in PieceA:
“Jane? What are you doing tomorrow night?” said Albert.
“Nothing. Why?”
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
“Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
“Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight,” said Albert.

Then added action to it in PieceB:
“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across uneven teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.

Do you see the shift? What are the major differences between the two pieces? Setting, personal preferences, characterization? PieceA has none of these things, which makes it sound flat and boring. PieceB tells us that Jane and Albert are probably in a restaurant, that Albert likes Jane, but Jane doesn’t necessarily feel the same way.

How do we know this? Let’s look at one line of Jane’s dialog, from both pieces.

A) “Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
B) Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.

How do these sound to you? The same? Probably not. The first could sound like anything. Jane could be nervous, excited without wanting to look excited, scared, horrified, anything. There are no clues to tell us what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. The second piece gives us the clues we need, so it’s easier for her voice to fill our heads.

This is tone. Action sets the character’s tone of voice. An annoyed person will do things like shift her weight, not make eye contact, sigh loudly, etc. So if we see her doing these kind of things, then we’ll hear the annoyance in her voice when she speaks (check out The Bookshelf Muse for an excellent Emotion Thesaurus; it illustrates actions associated with certain emotions). If the character isn’t doing anything, there’s no tone and the character sounds flat and lifeless. Tone, combined with the right choice of words, is what gives dialog authenticity, or, what makes it ring true.

A writer could study today’s teenagers – i.e. visit shopping malls, movie theaters, and other teen haunts - write down everything she hears, use it in dialog, and it could still sound forced, flat and false. It all depends on what the teenagers are doing. If what they do matches up with their personalities and the dialog, then you’ve got well-written dialog, with clear tone, that rings with authenticity.

“But,” you say. “Aren’t you missing something here?”

I surely am! Thanks for pointing that out. :) You probably picked up on that when I mentioned the Emotion Thesaurus, because the missing element is emotion! Without it, you've got nothing. Emotion works behind the scenes of Action. It’s the driving force, sets the direction, and ultimately sets the tone. So, once you’ve identified the appropriate emotions for a particular scene, then chosen the resulting actions and words, you’ve got yourself a stunning set of dialog.

Once again, this post has gotten quite long. And, once again, I haven’t covered everything. How do we know who’s speaking? How long should an exchange of dialog be? And, do we have to include everything? Those topics, and probably more, will come next week.


PJ Hoover said...

Wow, another great post! Thanks for the link for the Emotion Thesaurus. I've been making a list of actions, but haven't categorized it (and am still deciding whether I want to).
I love reading your entries!

Tabitha said...

The Emotion Thesaurus is awesome, and they just keep adding to it. :)

Glad you liked the post! :)

Marcia said...

Great post! So often we think weak dialogue is about the wording of the actual spoken lines. Improving dialogue may not be about changing the words between the quotation marks.

Tabitha said...

Thanks! :)

I agree that it's not all about changing what's in between the quotation marks. Those words do need to be chosen wisely, of course. :) But I think many writers don't see the rest that goes along with dialog. I mean, most people don't consiously register the body language that they see in other people. They just get a "feeling" about how the conversation is going and respond accordingly.

Writers can't get away with this. We have to pay attention to EVERYTHING, and then put those relevant details on the page (in a balanced fashion, of course). :)

beth said...

Good stuff here...this is exactly the kinds of posts I need when revising.

Tabitha said...

Thanks! :) Glad it was helpful!

Anne Spollen said...

Neat blog - this was fun to read!

Tabitha said...

Thanks! And thanks for stopping by! :)

Mary Witzl said...

I like all the points you make here. I wonder how many other people act out the scenes they are trying to describe? My kids laugh at me when I'm writing; they say I make weird faces and exaggerated gestures. This may be so, but all I'm trying to do is feel what my characters are feeling, to get an idea how to describe it.

Tabitha said...

Acting out the scenes makes perfect sense to me! :) I tend to talk to myself, gesture, walk around the room, etc. Just like you. We've got to find *some* way to get into our characters heads, don't we? :)