Friday, July 25, 2008

Watching Your Mouth

(My home away from home,, is shutting down August 4. With that in mind I've begun saving some of my articles and forum posts for posterity. This is a bit I wrote on dialogue for the Critique Forum.)

Ah, Dialogue.....I hate it! By far, narrative is the most enjoyable part of a writing a story for me. I even enjoy shows that have sparse dialogue scattered among many intimate and quiet moments. There's just something about the way beings interact when they're not speaking that appeals to me. But, alas, fiction cannot live on description alone - there must be (spoken) words! And "life and death is in the power of the tongue."

When I approach dialogue I use a formula. I didn't know I used a formula, but now that you ask, I believe I do. I'm not the best dialogue creator in the world, but you may try it if you wish. So in a scene where Mr. Spock has to go to Captain Kirk's quarters (Yes I'm using Start Trek as an example, bear with me here) and confess that he's the one whose been sabotaging the ship - Spock walks into the room, we get all the necessary descriptive bits, and then comes dialogue.

In deciding what Spock says, I find myself asking four questions, each with a different amount of freedom in the answer.

1. What could he say? Anything goes. This question is only limited by what my imagination can come up with. So I could go casual, "Howdy, Jim! I threw a wrench in the warp core!" Or maybe pathetic, "Please forgive me! I did something so totally heinous!" Perhaps with a bit of humor, "Guess who broke the port nacelle. Dooda! Dooda!" Like I said, just pushing all the boundaries to find something fresh.

2. What should he say? This is really a question of my own personal feelings and ethics. If I were in the situation, what would I do? Should I stand my ground or apologize profusely? Should I sugar coat it or be blunt? Believe it or not these questions will effect what my characters say and how I think they should act.

3. What would he say? The answers to this question are limited to what I know of the character, as played and written by the professionals who brought him to life. Spock is a logical creature, but he is also Kirk's best friend. He is half Vulcan, but his human side does rear it's head in these types of situations. In this story they have known each other for a long time. From these facts I can assume that his lines will be intense and to the point. Tender, yet blunt - and above all, truthful.

4. What must he say? The answer is a very specific group of lines based on the plot needs at this point. For the plot to move forward at this point, Spock must confess his sabotage, tell Kirk why, and say something meaningful that will keep their friendship intact.

So, having answered my four questions I come up with a first draft of dialogue:

"Captain, I am coming to you now, not as an officer of the Enterprise, but
as your friend."

"Of course. What is it, Spock?"

"Jim, I am afraid I was the culprit who sabotaged the Warp Core."

"What? You? Why, Spock?"

"I knew that prefect Valij would relieve you of duty and most likely
commandeer the ship the moment we got to the Neutral Zone. Logic and my own
conscience dictated that I do something to prevent us from getting there, even
if it meant harming the Enterprise. I can only hope you will forgive me, though
I will understand if you are forced to take disciplinary action."

"I think we can skip the court martial this time, my friend."

There. Not perfect, but workable :)