Saturday, April 9, 2011

Interlocking Dialogue -- Stimulus/Response

Just came across another example of dialogue exchanges that could be improved.  Here's the original:

He frowned. “You were in that class? I never managed to finish the term paper. Railroad schedules in Victorian Sussex. I remember the topic."

“I sat in the third row.”
 Just one of those bits of business. Probably the author wanted to imbed the idea that they were in this class together, or drop a clue about his knowledge of railroads or something.  But notice that the continuity of the question ("you were in that class?") and the answer ("I sat in the third row") is broken by the guy talking about his fascinating term paper.  Not a big deal, but it interferes with the reader's smooth reading of your narrative. And unless there's a reason to have the sentence elements this way, why be jagged?

So two options I can see:
1) Put the question at the end. Might have to rewrite a bit to make it clear the question is delayed because he's ruminating or reminiscing before he remembers his manners and makes the connection:
"I never managed to finish the term paper for that class. Railroad schedules in Victorian Sussex. I remember the topic." He frowned. “So you were in that class? "

“I sat in the third row.”

Moving the "he frowned" and adding "So" makes that question sound more like a conclusion or thought he came to as he recalled the course.

2) Have her respond not really to that question, but something he says at the end of his dialogue bit, like:
He frowned. “You were in that class? I never managed to finish the term paper. Railroad schedules in Victorian Sussex. Probably still have the incomplete on my record."

“I got an A.”

 There. She agrees she was in the class and adds a bit of information, which propels the story forward an inch or so, and does a bit of character differentiation (he got an incomplete, she got an A, or rather, he doesn't even remember the grade, and she does).

NOT a big deal. But the reader is going to notice a jagged stimulus/response diad if you don't. So train yourself to "hear" as you write or revise.  The fixes are usually minor and easy, once you notice the problem. 

You're in charge, remember. You might not be in charge of the plot or character (you know how things get out of hand), but you're completely in charge of these minor bits of narration. If you want to be known the elegance or eloquence of your voice, here's a place to start.  

But let me ask-- When you're reading, how sensitive are you to voice? How sensitive to these relatively minor (except perhaps to me and certainly to Theresa :) narration issues?



Michael McKee said...

My wife asked my why Janet Evanovich's books are so funny. Evanovich makes brilliant use of the disconnected dialogues you write about. (Yeah, about which you write).

Michael G-G said...

I'm not sure how sensitive I am to such things when reading, as I read quite fast and not always carefully--I might tend to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and infer that the characters were a couple of bores.

I like what the "I got an A" does. You get a strong sense of character from a response like that.

Gayle Carline said...

When I read, it's like a movie rolling across my brain, so I notice when things jar my senses. The dialogue as first written would have made me cranky, without some logic behind why the second voice focused on that first sentence.

Gail Dayton said...

I edit stuff like that in my writing all the time. I need that flow. Things have to fit together, or I have to be reminded what it was the second character is responding to. I am easily confused, so if I can't remember what they're talking about, how can I expect anybody else to??

I find being easily confused very helpful when I'm editing.