Category Archives: dialogue

Dialogue, the bane of my existence

I have been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, which is, of a surety, destined to land on my bookshelf as one of the handful of writing books I actually find useful. Someone has called it “tough love for writers” and I do not dispute that at all.

One point King makes in the book is that loners are generally lousy dialogue writers, however good they may be in general, and this insight struck home for me. In fact, I think it drew blood. I am, to put it simply, a solitary misanthropic curmudgeon, who has only grown more solitary and anti-social as I’ve gotten older. And I think this does show up in my dialogue, just as King suggests. I particularly flail about trying to write dialogue for my fantasy stories; in stories with contemporary settings I can better hear how people are supposed to sound, but in a wholly made-up universe the rhythm and sound of dialogue often escapes me.

Now that I have pulled it from the blog, I have been doodling with re-arranging some sections of Horse Tamer, seeing what I should get rid of and what I should keep, and I came to a certain exchange between Mankin and his crusty old sergeant, Denetoi. Reading it left me in a state of despair– the conversation seemed to clunk and thud and verge over toward the maudlin.

Then I remembered that this was, and still is, a first draft, and I decided to try a revision. The second version may now be a little too light-hearted, considering the seriousness of the topic, but I think it works a little better as believable dialogue. What do you think? I would welcome anybody’s opinion on these pieces, whether the original is as bad as I think it is, and whether the revision gets the job done.

Setting– Mankin and Denetoi are down by the wharves of Venia, where Mankin has just had his first seafood lunch, and Denetoi tries to give his friend and former commander some advice.

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Original—

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say.”

Mankin frowned in turn, looking at Denetoi. “And when have you ever hesitated to speak your mind?”

“Some things, it’s best to ask first.” Denetoi hesitated another moment before going on. “Cap’n, I’m worried about you.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, an old mother hen? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi met his look. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

Mankin sighed. “I’m past that, Denetoi.” I think.

“But you’re still unhappy,” the older man said. “I know something about what war can do to men, Cap’n– and losing people you care about. Some men just go to pieces, some men turn into tyrants, some men drink themselves to death.” Denetoi pointed a finger at Mankin. “You had one moment when you were ready to die, but since then you’ve bottled everything up. That sort thing will burst on you at some point, Cap’n. I promise you. You’re alive, but you’re not living.”

“Now we need to leave this be,” Mankin muttered.

“Let me finish my say, and then you can cuss me as you like. I know you have to grieve, Cap’n, and that’s the decent thing to do, but at some point– some point soon– you’ll need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin gritted his teeth. “And you think a whore will fix that up?”

“I could think of worse things.”

“We’re done talking about this,” Mankin said.

Denetoi shrugged, looked away. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything.”

They finished their meal in silence. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“As you say, Cap’n.” Denetoi’s face was closed.

Revision—

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, I never told you…I was real sorry when I heard about your wife and your little one. “

Mankin said nothing for a moment. “Thank you.”

Denetoi seemed to think about what he was going to say next. “I’m worried about you, Cap’n.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, my mother? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi looked up. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

“I’m past that.” I think.

“Maybe,” the older man said. “But—beggin’ your pardon, Cap’n, but you’re still not right.”

Mankin said nothing. He couldn’t deny it.

“You’re all bottled up,” Denetoi said. “You can’t go on forever like that.”

“Not sure what else I can do,” Mankin muttered.

Denetoi started to say something, then closed his mouth. “Well,” he said, “the truth is I don’t have an answer, either. I was going to tell you to get yourself a woman, but that’s not your way.”

“No.” No, it’s not.

“But one way or another,” Denetoi said, “at some point, Cap’n, you’re going to need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin looked at the sergeant. “Does anybody ever that figure that out? Have you?”

“Ah, well, I keep things simple,” Denetoi said, smiling. “Beer, women, crab-stew—that’s what keeps me going.”

“I guess.” Mankin smiled, too. “And here I thought you mostly just knew about horses.”

“Men and horses,” Denetoi said, “not a lot of difference between them, when you think about it.”

They finished their meal and drank another pot of ale each. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“Not sure I can walk uphill too quick,” Denetoi said. He picked his teeth with fingernail. “Damn good stew.”

“We can take our time,” Mankin said.

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One thing about this revision– it incorporates the biggest insight I’ve gained in the last few years about writing around emotions– less is definitely more. A heavy hand in laying out what a character is feeling is the kiss of death. It’s just sad it took me this long to figure that out.

So, opinions? Any and all input is welcome. And I thank you beforehand.