Friday, December 21, 2007

Buried Dialogue Is Not Buried Treasure

Before we get into the meat of today's topic, I want to take care of a little blog business.

First, let me say thank you! The response to this little blog has been overwhelming. Alicia and I are gratified and a little shocked by the way people are spreading the word. It's wonderful!

We take that to mean this blog might be useful, and that's what we were aiming for: a useful, practical source for bite-sized technical information. To that end, I've added a sidebar poll. If you think one topic or another might be more useful, please vote for it and we'll see what we can do. You may vote for more than one topic. The poll closes on New Year's Eve, so we'll start the new year by taking a look at what folks are most interested in learning.

If you're on a feed reader, you'll have to go to the actual blog to vote. Click here:
http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/

Now, let's talk about what I promised to talk about a few days ago: dialogue buried in the middle of paragraphs.

The Fad For Fast

Alicia made a valid point about paragraphing being, in some respects, a voice issue. There's a bit more to it than that, because paragraphing has a profound effect on pacing.

In decades past, books were long and meaty, and paragraphs could easily fill entire pages with dense blocks of type. Currently, the preference is for fast-paced prose and a lot of white space on the page. It's not that either way is wrong. This isn't a matter of right or wrong but a matter of effect and control.

What effect do you want to cause on the reader? Do you want your reader to sink deep and savor the prose? Or do you want to leave them breathless, turning pages as fast as their eyes can manage?

General rules:
More paragraph breaks create a faster pace.
Dialogue reads at a faster pace than other narrative elements.
Confusion will slow a reader's pace to a crawl.

So, let's say this is your paragraph:

Mary set the table with her grandmother's china and the porcelain candlesticks Jason had bought for her at the flea market last spring. A crisp white linen tablecloth and simple white napkins provided the perfect backdrop for the red and gold dishes. She stood back to observe the effect. "Perfect. It must be perfect," she muttered. Candles, should she light them now or later? She wanted everything to be seamless, so effortlessly beautiful and romantic that he'd have no choice but to give her that ring he'd been carrying in his coat pocket for the last two weeks.

In theory, we could go to press with a paragraph like this. In practice, we would break it up like so:

Mary set the table with her grandmother's china and the porcelain candlesticks Jason had bought for her at the flea market last spring. A crisp white linen tablecloth and simple white napkins provided the perfect backdrop for the red and gold dishes. She stood back to observe the effect.

"Perfect. It must be perfect," she muttered.

Candles, should she light them now or later? She wanted everything to be seamless, so effortlessly beautiful and romantic that he'd have no choice but to give her that ring he'd been carrying in his coat pocket for the last two weeks.

Because dialogue carries a special emphasis in the narrative, readers tend to scan it a bit differently than they do non-dialogue. The quotation marks off-set the dialogue and serve as a bold signal to our eyes that the contained lines are different from the surrounding prose.

When the quotation marks appear in the middle of a block of type, they're not as visually pronounced. We'll still see them, but we'll see them differently than if they were also offset by a new paragraph indent. The dialogue will be downplayed simply because it's buried in the middle of a block of text.

In fact, skimmers -- those readers who only read dialogue and the first line of every text paragraph -- will probably miss the buried dialogue altogether. Even those who read every line might be lulled into glossing over the buried dialogue.

This can create confusion. If an important nugget is buried in the dialogue, something more critical than a woman mumbling about dishes, will it create enough of an impression on the reader to be remembered later?

Genre fiction right now is swinging toward faster prose, and that means offsetting your dialogue instead of burying it. But when would you want to bury it? When a character is revealing something very reluctantly. Or when you want to hide a clue in plain sight. Any time you want to diminish the impact of something, dialogue or non-dialogue, you bury it in the dead center of a long paragraph.

These days, when I get a submission full of long, dense paragraphs, it usually signals that the submission won't be right for us. We tend to see this kind of blocky writing in connection with other problems -- overwriting, pendantic notions of female sexuality, lack of control over the narrative.

This is why I beg to be spared from big paragraphs with dialogue buried in the middle. Not because it's a technical error akin to a comma splice or a dangling modifier, but because these kinds of paragraphs generally signal a manuscript that will be a bit overstuffed and out of control.

In other words, if you're not burying your dialogue to create a deliberate effect, you're probably better off not burying it at all.

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