Monday, September 13, 2010

the music of dialogue

Sometimes, I find that all the scene setting, the description, and plot, it all feels like homework just so I can finally get to what my characters are saying. I'm just so eager to put myself in a corner and watch a couple of invented folks hash it out.

Dialogue has always been my favorite part of writing, I think in part, because it's so dynamic. It's a catalyst for action--an activity that breaks things loose.

When I read a great piece of dialogue--a scene that reveals, let's say, some nuanced bit of relationship, or cements an inkling I may have had about the true nature of what Character A means to Character B, it's incredibly satisfying.

But I think the main thing I love about successful dialogue, whether I'm reader or writer, is the sound it leaves me with--the music. Like a favorite song, it lingers in my head for hours.

And it's not just what is said between the quotation marks. The connective tissue, the on-the-body action that accompanies what's said, is just as important. Here's one of my favorite little, oh, I don't know, let's call them set pieces. It's from Augusten Burroughs' collection Magical Thinking, in a story called "Commercial Break" :

"Children, children, may I have your attention please?" she clapped her hands together quickly. Smacksmacksmacksmacksmack.

A writer can't always get away with that sort of onomatopoeiac discourse, but But Burroughs has the chops. He has the authority, the cadence and the pacing, which are three other, more nebulous, concepts that go along way toward satisfying dialogue.

Here's another amazing little tidbit. This time from Flannery O'Connor. A story called "The River":

"Don't forget him mamma," Mrs. Connin called. "He wants you to pray for his mamma. She's sick."

"Lord," the preacher said, "we pray for somebody in affliction who isn't here to testify. Is your mother sick in the hospital?" he asked. "Is she in pain?"

The child stared at him. "She hasn't got up yet," he said in a high dazed voice. "She has a hangover." The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water.

That Flannery. Couldn't you just wring her dead neck? How beautiful is that language. When crisp dialogue sits inside something as gorgeous as "the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water," well, how can you not have that in your head for the rest of the day?

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