Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Dialoguing
What is dialogue? It's people talking – to each other, it is hoped.
Why do they do it? Because you can't see people on a page. Oh, sure, you can describe them, but if they don't talk, you might as well be writing an essay. Mime is a bit difficult in prose. Think how boring it would be if you wrote:
Abbott and Costello were standing on a stage, in front of a set resembling a baseball diamond. Costello was wearing a baseball uniform with the fake college letters 'PU'. Costello wanted to know about the baseball team Abbott was managing. Abbott responded that his team was very good, but that the players had odd names. Abbott explained that Who was on First, What was on Second, and I Don't Know was on Third. Costello became frustrated and annoyed at his inability to understand the names of the fielders, but positively angry when he was informed that the Pitcher was Tomorrow and the Catcher Today...1
Not very satisfying, is it? Better put the words in the characters' mouths. Let them do the work. But how?
You get the drift.
Hard to tell the players without some labels. But how much to tell, how much to leave to the reader's imagination?
Bud Abbott folded his long satin caftan and adjusted his turban with an air of satisfaction. 'Lou, my boy, we have landed in clover here in the Sultanate of Lurekistan. We're in high cotton.'
Lou, reclining on an Ottoman (who didn't seem to mind), wiggled his toes in his jewelled sandals. 'Which is it, clover or cotton? I can't see nothin' green out the window. All that's out there is sand, sand, and more sand.'
'The sands of time run slowly in the Sahara,' cooed a melodious voice from the arabesque doorway. An 18-inch cigarette holder preceded its owner into the room. The complete vision involved a be-sequined and slinky brunette with a Persian cat under one arm. As Costello's sandals shook with the force of his double-take, Madame Lasagne commanded, 'Peel me a grape, El Viro.'
A little background helps, we suspect. Notice that this way, you can slip in an extra character or two without much work on your part. Let them bring their own props.
What If We Leave Out the Labels?
There is, of course, the minimalist approach:
'Where are we? I can't see nothin'.'
'You can't see anything.'
'That's what I said. I can't see nothin'.'
'Lou, that's the difference between you and me. I try to improve myself. Whereas you go around being an uneducated lout.'
'Who you callin' a lout? Why, I'd punch you in the nose. If I could see it.'
'Excuse me, huh, huh. Has either of your gennilmun got a light? Huh, huh. I think I'm afraid of the dark...'
'Hey, Abbott. Who is that?'
'I'm Peter Lorre. I'm about to introduce a new plot element. If I can find the light switch. But, Mr Abbott, may I point out that you should be glad Mr Costello always starts his dialogues with 'Hey, Abbott'? Huh, huh. Then you know he's not me...'
That's enough of that. Minimalist dialogue probably needs a minimal cast. And a less feeble attempt to indicate inflection.
Let THEM Tell the Story..Wait...
Finally, there is the consideration of how much idiot dialogue you can foist on your characters. Let's go back to Lurekistan.
Madame Lasagne blinked languidly as she took Costello's place on the Ottoman, eating her grape slowly and seductively. Abbott studied her through narrowed eyes, as Costello set the cat down near a mousehole.
'There,' he said. 'Earn your keep.'
Abbott crossed his arms. 'Alright, lady, out with it. What are you doing here? What are you planning?'
The minx crossed her legs, making the Ottoman shift a bit. 'Gentlemen,' she purred, 'I have a proposition to our mutual benefit. You may be aware that the Sultan of Lurekistan has three daughters. Their names are Ma, Maha, and Mahali. Now, Ma is in love with the eldest son of the Sharif of Coffeyin, whose name is Aladdin. Aladdin, however, is quite a lad. He already has 3,000 girlfriends on the internet. To make things worse, Aladdin is flirting on Facebook with Maha and Mahali. Ma doesn't know this, but her faithful servant Minihaha does. To solve the problem, Minihaha has put up her own Facebook page, and is masquerading as Aladdin's younger brother, Saladoil. Saladoil hates Facebook, and is only interested in playing fantasy games. Anyway, as Saladoil, Minihaha is busy disliking everything Aladdin puts up, which is causing a severe crisis in the palace at Coffeyin...'
Costello interrupted. 'Hey, lady, can we go back to the baseball game? This is givin' me a headache.'
Abbott shushed him. 'Shush. Your turban's on too tight. Go on, Madame. I'm all ears...'
Well, you get the general idea.
For Further Reading
The management recommends the following dialogues for their edifying content and elegant form:
- Various and sundry delightful characters in the novel Beau Sabreur, by PC Wren. Note how the master handles the different clichéd nationalities with such aplomb that you can't wait to see if the French hero survives to marry the American heiress. (No spoilers here, move along.)
- Oh, if you must have a play: try The Importance of Being Ernest, by Mr Oscar Wilde. He'll set you straight on how to be sparkling.
- For an even older example of terrific dialogue – and an object lesson on the gift of speech – check out this highly edifying story from a long time ago.
Until next week, talk among yourselves...