Wally, my problem student, brought me some story dialogue the other day. It read like this:
"Don't make me go any closer!" Annie cried.
"There's nothing to fear", Joe soothed. "See?"
"That's easy for you to say!" quoth Annie.
"Is that better?" asked Joe.
"Oh, yes!" murmured Annie. "Much!"
"Annie, you do love me, after all!"
I'll spare you the details of the real-life conversation that then ensued between me and Wally. However, the gist of it from my standpoint was that I as a fiction reader didn't have any idea of what was going on in Wally's story in the dialogue just quoted. Wally protested that he had, after all, followed the rules of stimulus and response, and had given me everything the characters said; therefore, he couldn't understand what my problem was.
I then tried to explain to Wally that the dialogue left me at a loss. Among other things, I could not:
• See anything that was happening during the dialogue;
• Hear anything except the dialogue words;
• Smell anything that might be pertinent, Taste anything, Feel any other possible tactile sensations;
• Know any thoughts the viewpoint character might be having, so that I might as a reader get a hint as to how I was supposed to be taking this dialogue;
• Feel any emotions of the viewpoint character, also as an aid to my reader response to the situation being portrayed;
• Be aware of the goal of the viewpoint character, so that I can guess how things are going in the scene.
"Wally", I concluded, "dialogue without any sense impressions, thoughts or feelings of the viewpoint character gets totally abstract; it stops making sense; the reader gets lost. I'm not suggesting great, purple patches of stuff-just enough to keep me oriented. "
Wally went off and rewrote. He soon came up with something like the following (his additional material is italicized):
The chill wind tugged at Joe's coat as he pulled Annie closer to the edge of the cliff. Behind them, gusts swayed the ponderosa pines. A few feet from where he now led the quaking girl, the granite escarpment simply stopped Beyond the brink was the windy vastness of a sheer, thousand-foot drop, straight down.
Annie's shaking became more violent, and her eyes glistened with sudden, frightened tears. "Don't make me go any closer!"
Joe stepped back a step, leaving her alone on the brink. He had to make her confront this terror or she could never forget what had happened here last summer. "There's nothing to fear", Joe soothed. "See?"
Annie's wide eyes took in the space between them-how much farther back from the edge he hadmoved, leaving her alone. "That's easy for you to say!" she said bitterly.
Suddenly Joe couldn't be cruel to her any longer. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, intent only on protecting her, always, if she would just let him. "Is that better?" he asked.
"Oh, yes!" Annie murmured gratefully, snuggling against him. "Much!" Still crying, she raised her face to his and gently kissed him. Her perfume, mountain flowers, surrounded them. Joe could scarcely believe the glad certainty that swept through him. She clung more fiercely.
Her response told Joe everything he needed to know. Her fear was gone in this instant, and so was his worry that she had never really cared for him. "Annie", he said, touching her face with his fingertips, "you do love me, after all!"
Annie sobbed and buried her face against his chest. "Yes!"
Her fear was gone. But Joe knew he had won far more than the battle against her past. Still holding her close, he led her back off the cold, windy cliff and into the sea-green shade of the woods
I thought then -and still think-that my student Wally might have overdone it a bit with his revision. But he put in some sense impressions and thoughts, as well as intentions and an indication of emotions. As a result, I the reader now saw where we were, could somewhat sense the physical impressions of the place, knew what viewpoint Joe wanted, and why he was acting as he was, understood a little of Annie's plight and emotions-and in general could get involved.
Sure, student Wally might need to tone it down a bit on final rewrite. But he was now on track, writing dialogue the reader could follow.
If this episode with Wally rings any kind of bell with you, I urge you to examine your own dialogue in a story. You must not make your readers deaf or blind. You must provide them with sense impressions from the viewpoint character. And you must tell them some of what the viewpoint character wants, thinks and feels emotionally, too. Otherwise the dialogue will get as meaningless- and float in as abstract a space - as Wally's did in first draft.
Of course there will be times when the dialogue transaction, or other story action, is very simple and straightforward, and the challenge to you the writer will be easy because you won't have to put down very much to keep the reader oriented. But there will be other situations where the movement of the characters, the complexity of the setting, or the depth of the viewpoint character's thoughts, feelings and changing motives may require considerably more author interpretation than Wally's did. In other words, how much you put in, in addition to the dialogue, may depend on how complicated the transaction becomes.
In any case, however, you can't ask your reader to play blind man's bluff. Just because you see and hear details in your imagination as you write the scene does not mean that the reader will by some magic guess the same details. You have to give her enough hints to go on.
Perhaps you will want to check some of your own recent fiction copy at this point to see if you have provided enough sense-emotion-thought detail to keep readers oriented during the flow of the dialogue.
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