Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What We're writing--Rhys on Dialog (or is it dialogue?)

RHYS BOWEN: At the moment you are reading this I'll be heading to the airport on my way to the Bouchercon mystery convention where I'm looking forward to seeing fellow Reds Hank, Debs and Susan. I'm on a panel on Saturday with Hank and Deborah--it's about our tales from the road: mishaps, misadventures and outright fun during our book tours and speeches. I hope there are going to be some stunning reveals. I know I have plenty of good stories. I may share some with you when it's my next turn to host JRW.

But in the meantime I'm juggling two books: I have finished the first draft of the next Georgie Book, called ON HER MAJESTY'S FRIGHTFULLY SECRET SERVICE, I've started on the final polish, and I'm just starting to write the next Molly book, called THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST. This is a much more somber affair so I'm having to juggle the two a little and switch moods between jolly and depressing!

I've been reading a lot of books lately and one thing that strikes me about beginning writers is that they don't know how to handle dialog.(or is it dialogue? I spend my time writing half in British English and half in American English, hence perpetually confused!)

 When people start to talk we have one line of speech after another, like staccato bullets. In real life people don't speak like that. They speak in broken sentences, they gesture, their body language matches their mood, outside things happen like planes flying over, dogs rushing in. AND we need to be reminded where we are. If the dialog scene takes place on a train station we need to hear an announcement or toot of a train whistle to remind us.

I've been told that my dialog is one of the things readers enjoy most about my books, so I thought I'd share a scene in which we have action, dialog, character and setting all playing a part: This is from the Georgie book I am working on. We are in Stresa, Italy, on Lake Maggiori:

            As I approached the villa I spotted a group of people, sitting on a terrace beneath an arbor of wisteria. I felt suddenly shy and awkward. Why had I not asked the driver to take me to the villa? I must look pathetic, staggering up the drive carrying my own suitcase and dressed in my unfashionable tweed suit. And what if the letter still hadn’t arrived and here I was with my suitcase?  Had the queen actually suggested that I join the house party, or merely that I should be welcomed for a drink if I showed up? Why on earth hadn’t I left the suitcase at Belinda’s house and pretended I had just dropped by to pay my respects? Then, when they suggested I should stay I could have acted as if I was surprised and they would have sent someone to pick up my belongings. But now I was committed. I couldn’t retreat without being noticed. It was only a matter of time before one of them looked up and…
            I was startled by a great scream. “Georgie!”
            I was even more startled to see that the scream came from my mother. She had risen to her feet and was running toward me, her arms open. “Georgie, my darling!” she exclaimed in that voice that had filled London theaters. “What a lovely, lovely surprise. I had no idea you were coming to join us. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
            She flung her arms around me , something she was not in the habit of doing. Then she turned back to the others. “Which of you arranged to bring my daughter to me? Was it you, Max, who suggested it? You knew I was pining for her, didn’t you?”
            I had prudently put down the suitcase before she attacked me. Now she took my hand and dragged me forward. “Everybody, this is my darling child, Georgie, whom I haven’t seen for ages and ages. And I had no idea she was coming to join us. ” She gazed at me adoringly. “And now you’re here. It seems like a miracle.”
            I noticed she had failed to mention that she had bumped into a few days ago and at that time there had been no talk of inviting me to join her. Nor had she seemed overjoyed to see me. As I smiled back at her I wondered what she was up to.
            Several other members of the party had also risen to their feet as she led me up steps to the arbor. Among them I recognized Miss Cami-Knickers herself. She looked older, perfectly groomed, incredibly chic as she stepped down from the terrace and approached me.
            “Georgiana. How delightful to see you again after all this time. I was so pleased to receive a note from the queen herself suggesting that you join our party.”
            I shook the hand that was offered. “I do hope this has not inconvenienced you in any way, Camilla,” I said. “When I told her majesty that I’d be staying nearby I really had no idea she’d invite me to be part of your house party. But she was insistent that I pay my respects to my cousin, the Prince of Wales.”
            “But not at all,” Camilla laughed. I remembered she had always had a horsy sort of laugh. Her horsy looks had definitely been improved with impeccable grooming and expensive clothes but the laugh was unchanged. “Actually we’re horribly short on women at the party, so you are a godsend at evening up the numbers.  Come and meet my husband and the other guests.”
            I followed her up to the terrace where several men were now standing to greet me. One of them I recognized immediately as Paolo, Belinda’s former love. I saw from his face that he also remembered me but I also saw the warning sign flash in his eyes. “Pretend you don’t know me,” could not have been more clear if he had shouted the words.
            “My husband Paolo, Count of Marola and Martini,” she said proudly.
            “My dear Lady Georgiana, you are most welcome, especially since my wife tells me you and she were old friends from your school days.” He took my hand and kissed it.
            “How do you do, Count,” I said, inclining my head formally.  “But please let us dispense with formality. Why don’t you call me Georgie?”
            ‘Georgie. How charming.” He smiled. I had forgotten how incredibly handsome he was. I could see why Belinda had been quite smitten at the time.
            Camilla took my arm and moved me on. “And of course you already know Herr von Strohheim?”
            My mother’s beau Max clicked his heels and said, “Georgie. I am pleased to see you again,” in his stilted, staccato English. At least it was better than when he first met my mother and spoke only occasional monosyllables.
“Max, how are you?” I said, shaking his hand. He too looked handsome in a blonde and Germanic way and I was reminded of my encounter on the train with….
            “And this is Count Rudolf von Rosskopf,” Camilla said, and I found myself face to face with my would-be seducer.
            He too took my hand and drew it to his lips. “We meet again, Lady Georgiana,” he said. “What a delightful surprise. And I had no idea that we would run into each other again so soon. It must be fate, drawing us together.” He looked rather pleased with himself and his eyes flirted with me.
            “Behave yourself, Rudi,” my mother snapped. “This is my young daughter, you know.”

            “Not too young,” Rudi said. “Ripe and ready for adventure, I think.”

RHYS: I rather fear that seduction will be the least of Georgie's worries as the story progresses!
So do share: what do you look for in good dialog?


  1. Now I am definitely looking forward to reading this book . . . it sounds like Georgie’s in for quite an adventure!

    I like reading dialogue that feels natural and flows easily. In this selection, I especially like how the words and actions blend . . . as I read, it creates a wonderful sort of tableau in my mind.

  2. Wonderful excerpt Rhys--love Georgie!

    And Joan puts her finger on some important strengths that you've shown us.

    Sometimes all my characters can sound the same--so I need to be aware of who they are and how that would inform what they say.

  3. What a great snippet. And I totally adore that title.

    I think dialog has to fit the character and the scene. Education level, profession, personality. If you have a street-wise drug dealer talking in long, perfectly formed sentences, it's off. Likewise, if your character is a college professor talking in street slang, that doesn't work (unless he's a language professor and he's illustrating something).

    And yes, you need to sprinkle in gestures, scenery, what's happening around. What's tripped me up is how to indicate someone is searching for a word. Too many sentences trailing off, and I think you run the risk of your character sounding like he/she is too clueless to finish a sentence or is very indecisive (of course, you may be trying to show that, so who knows).

    Can't wait to see you all in New Orleans!

  4. Lovely example, Rhys! And just the title of "On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service" makes me laugh.

    I love writing dialogue (the proper spelling!!) So funny, because when I first started writing I was terrified of it. But it's a great way not only to reveal character, but to set scenes and action and mood.

    Running for the airport--see you in New Orleans!!

  5. What a delicious scene, Rhys. Enjoy B'con!

  6. I agree with Debs, the title alone makes me smile! And all these ex-beaus and would-be-ravishers sounds like the beginning of an Agatha Christie tale set on a train. Or at a country villa in Italy?

    To me, the most important part of dialogue (I'm with you on the spelling, Rhys) is to try to have every character's words reflect who they are. As Mary says, no street-wise dealers using $14 words. Grand Master Lawrence Block says the reader should be able to identify who is speaking even if the author takes all the dialogue tags away. You can see how Rhys does it here: Camilla is formal, Georgie's mother is extravagant, Rubert seductive, Max curt.

    Try it: if you rearrange the scene so Georgie comes upon the characters all at once before they start speaking, and then simply add in the dialogue, you can still tell who's saying what:

    “Georgie, my darling! What a lovely, lovely surprise. I had no idea you were coming to join us. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”

    “Georgiana. How delightful to see you again after all this time. I was so pleased to receive a note from the queen herself suggesting that you join our party.”

    “Georgie. I am pleased to see you again."

    “We meet again, Lady Georgiana. What a delightful surprise. And I had no idea that we would run into each other again so soon. It must be fate, drawing us together.”

    “Behave yourself, Rudi. This is my young daughter, you know.”

    “Not too young. Ripe and ready for adventure, I think.”

    That's good dialogue!

  7. What I look for in dialogue? Hmmm, I think when it's well done and neatly placed in the scene, I don't notice it at all. It just flows, taking the story with it.

    It's when it's badly done that I can't help noticing. Loud and disruptive. Such as all kinds of patter (Coffee? Yes please. Sugar and cream? Just milk thanks...). Or overworked dialogue tags (he chortled, she burbled, he hissed). Or worst of all, eye-killing, brain-numbing dialect, when you have to read every line out loud to figure out what the Cockney/Scot/Southern Belle is actually saying. :^)

  8. When I see unbroken dialogue on a page I sometimes want to groan, as it sometimes means I'll need to go back a page or so to figure out who is speaking and when. A paragraph break doesn't always indicate a new speaker, I have discovered.

    Your snippet of the new book makes me so impatient to read it! In addition to hearing each speaker, I can even see the expressions on the faces of all the people gathered there.

    Deb Romano

  9. Lovely example of good dialogue, Rhys!

    I believe that dialogue can make or break a novel. I love how you give different characters their personalities.

    I agree with what Julia said. I was going to say what Julia said. I love the title " her majesty's frightfully secret service".

    Do you have advice for aspiring authors in terms of how they can develop dialogue? When I write my stories, I struggle to develop good dialogue.

    I find myself saying "he said ...," and "she said" in the next sentence.

    Thank you,

  10. SO wonderful! And sometimes it's the choice of words. Very simplistically: Say you have an accountant. What words and analogies might she use--as opposed to a less analytical and numerical person? It all added up, she figured, plusses and minuses, grand total… That's oversimplified, and you wouldn't be SO obvious, but it's all about how someone's brain is working inside, and that's what drives what comes out.

    My personal nemesis is italics. WHen I am finished with a scene, I go beak over it to see how I can write it more carefully so I don't need them.

  11. Rhys, I love the feel of your stories. The characters and the settings all make the feelings connect with the movement. Love this post. Love the way you write.

    Hank, italics. So discouraging. But, I'm going to try your method of going back over the scene when I'm finished with it.

  12. Rhys,

    I love your characters. Can you recommend some books about writing good dialogue?