This is from an old movie, I would guess few people could place it:
Smythe: That’s puttering, sir.
Stew: No! Well well well! That’s all right if you like it. Can anybody do that?
Smythe: Oh no, sir. Some people are natural putterers. Others can never master it.
There are a few reasons this dialog works for me personally. First, I am a natural born putterer. My family will point out this behavior, not to me, but to each other (‘mum’s in a putter’ sez the Mathematician in his native accent).
From a writer’s perspective, I like this dialog because
…it’s witty in a way that adds to characterization (you’ll have to take my word on that, unless you want to find the movie and study the entire scene in context), and
(this is a pet theory of mine) it points out a truth that is often made concrete — by adding a dash of the absurd.
Recently I got cranky about an article in the Times Literary Supplement on Elmore Leonard‘s ten rules for writers. The article ended with this bit of high-handed advice: “Our rule for the cultivation of good writing is much simpler: stay in, read, and don’t limit yourself to American crime fiction.”
I’ll admit that I thought Elmore Leonard’s list was a bit vague (“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. “) except where it was too specific (“3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialog.”)
So I’m going to list three of my rules and give other people a chance to bash at me. It’s only fair.
1. When in doubt, read the passage out loud (1) to yourself (2) to somebody else you like (3) to somebody else you don’t like. Take the average of all three reactions. If you still have absolutely no idea if the damn thing is any good, at least you will have succeeded in wasting another hour.
2. Hit a wall? Take a page-long scene with dialog you like from a novel you admire. Write it out longhand, but switch all the genders of the characters. This will either paralyze you for a week or give you good ideas.
3. Take a random page from your manuscript and highlight every occurence of ‘very’ in yellow. Now go through and highlight every adjective in blue and every remaining adverb or adjective (in case you’re not sure of the difference) in pink. If you’ve got rainbow-esque page in front of you when you are finished, delete all of the highlighted terms . Now put back only one out of ten. Choose carefully. (If you’ve got no pink, yellow or blue on the page, you’re in a minimalist sink-hole and you’ll need professional help to get out.)
It’s a delicate business, but it can be done well. Examples from published fiction that you might find of interest below.
I’ve also included a few examples from my own work — including a passage where I commit the very sin I’ve been talking about here.
A lot of the second novel in the Wilderness series takes place in lowland Scotland in 1802. The language spoken by the characters would have been Scots — not English. I’ll spare you the discourse on the difference at the moment, but while I was writing the novel I struggled with representing Scots in writing, and I did end up using spelling, to some degree. Here’s an example:
Continue reading “more dialect in dialog”
Robyn pointed me to a LiveJournal entry by Jane St. Clair which contemplates Farscape (most particularly the relationship between Aeryn and John), and heterosexual relationships across genres. The issues have to do in the first line (but not exclusively) with the wide wide world of fan fiction (if you go have a look, don’t be startled at the word “slash” — it’s not about knives).***
[…] I demand more stories in which people have bad first sex.
(For some strange reason, my urge to write an long series of tales in which people have extremely bad sex. So awful that they never want to see each other again. But it doesn’t really satisfy anyone but me. No one expects their porn to include, “Can we stop? You’re on my hair.”)
This made me laugh, but it also made me think. Do I always leave out the not-so-nice parts about two people getting together? I think the closest I come to writing about a relationship that begins with a really rocky ride is in Fire Along the Sky, but I can’t say more here without giving a major plot line away. So this is something I will continue to think about. Maybe when FAS comes out this summer people will have an opinion on this.
The other thing that really struck me was this:
My beloved Shakespeare prof spent a long time reconciling us to the notions of love the plays offered, which often didn’t sync well with our own. What she led us to was the recognition that the strongest sign of love or affection is play. Sometimes teasing (Much Ado About Nothing) or wordplay (The Taming of the Shrew — she had us quite convinced that Katherina didn’t mean a word of her final speech on the place of women, that it was all humorously ironic and meant for Petruchio’s amusement), or gameplay (The Tempest). But in most modern portrayals of love, we go for either deep drama (angst) or domestic tranquility (curtainfic), leaving no space for a healthy relationship interesting enough to hold its audience.
Jane St. Clair has put her finger on something here. My sense is that sex takes second seat to playful banter for many of my readers. It certainly does for me. But how it all these elements work together — playfulness, drama, tranquility — that’s something to contemplate for a good while.
***I’ve got a longer entry on fan fiction I’ve been working on for a while. Hope to post it soon.