Advanced Storytelling



Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 171–173).

Remember that few of your characters are onstage in view of the audience at any given time. But all those others are backstage somewhere, and they're still living their lives and making their plans which you must know if they are to reappear at the right times in the right (that is, most complicating) places.

When characters do appear onstage, chances are that they will be in dialogue. Dialogue is the lifeblood of most contemporary scene. We discussed earlier how dialogue must follow the patterns of stimulus and response, and how dialogue paragraphs are formed. To refresh your memory, let's review the principles we mentioned at that time.

Simplify your dialogue transactions. Send one tennis ball over the net at a time. If a character wants to ask what time it is, mention that it's a nice day, and say he is leaving at midnight for London, you must break up this information so that he first only asks what time it is and gets an answer; says it's a nice and day and gets an answer; then says he is leaving for London, and gets an answer. (In each case, you can easily make up a response for the other party which not only replies to his stimulus, but in turn becomes a stimulus which partly causes him to enter his next step in the transaction.)

Paragraph dialogue elements together. The rule here is you have four things that happen in dialogue; the spoken words, the attribution, the stage action, and (possibly) introspection. However many you choose to have in a given stimulus or response package, they should all go in the same paragraph. When it's time for the other player to return the ball, you start a new paragraph.

The dialogue package item to which you want a response should go last in the paragraph. Thus if Joe says he's sorry and extends his hand, the other party will respond to his hand. But if he extends his hand and then says he's sorry, the other party will respond to his words.

There are a few dialogue devices which also should be mentioned beyond this review, which was put in with malice aforethought because so many people in my experience hear what was just said, but never really understand it.

The other ideas can be briefly stated as follows.

To link elements of dialogue, you might use one of the following devices:

Use question and answer. When one character is questioning another, and the second character is being at all responsive, the dialogue units link tightly.

Allow one character to interrupt the other. Whe Bart statrs to say something and Karen breaks in, the link is tight and immediate, as in this example:

"As I was saying to my mother—"

"Do we always have to talk about her?"

Use repetition of key words. The characters in dialogue pick up on key words from one another, and their repetition syntactically ties the exchanges close.

Karen said, "I want a divorce."

"A divorce?" Bart choked. "I don't understand!"

"You never have understood."

"Never? I thought we understood each other so well!"

"Damn you! Can't you see what I'm saying?"

"All I can see is I love you—"

"Love?" Her expression was bitter. "You don't know what the word means."

Because he depended so heavily on dialogue, Ernest Hemingway's stories remain classic examples of brief, tight dialogue. So do Dashiell Hammett's. And, for that matter, F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Along with your study of current novels, you may profit from studying these masters.

You may also want to consider body language as a field of additional study as you look for facial expressions, gestures, bodily movements and postures which could be useful as stage action in dialogue interchanges. Some postures—arms crossed across the chest when the person is feeling defensive, for example—are so obvious as to be clear to most of us. Others are not as apparent.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.