Dont Let Them Be Windbags

In the last chapter we warned about letting characters for the sake of piling information into the story. But that's not the only way writers sometimes mess up their dialogue. Sometimes, without realizing it, they let their characters talk on and on, boringly, becoming windbags.

A windbag, in old-fashioned slang, is a person who talks and talks and talks... and talks some more... and never lets anybody get a word in edgewise.

Windbags in real life are colossal bores.

In fiction they're even worse.

That's important to remember, because so much of modern fiction is composed of dialogue-characters talking. You can't afford to portray windbag characters all the time, because if you do, your characters will be boring, your dialogue will look more like rampant soliloquies than real people talk, and your story will go right down the tubes.

So you have to write modern dialogue. That means that the only time you can let a story character talk like a windbag is when you intend to portray him as a windbag. The great majority of your characters have to be more terse and logical than we often are in real life, if the dialogue on the page is to appear realistic.

Which is to say: good, realistic story dialogue often has little actual resemblance to the way we really talk every day. It just looks that way.

How do you avoid the dread windbag syndrome?

You must not:

• Fill pages with endless, rambling talk.

• Try to substitute speeches for dialogue.

• Allow characters to beat every subject to death.

• Let one character totally ignore what the other is saying.

• Fill your story with talk where nobody wants anything.

• Be literary or classic.

• Produce pages of dull, overlong paragraphs of speechifying.

But what, you may ask, can you do to prevent this sort of thing?

In the first place, recognize that a story conversation should almost always follow the rules of stimulus and response as explained in Chapter Eleven.

Second, whenever possible, set up your dialogue scenes so that they play out "one-on-one", getting rid of other characters (who might interrupt and make the conversation more complicated). Setting up one-on-one dialogues makes life simpler all around. If Joe and Bill are to talk in your story, and you also have Sam and Fred standing around, figure a way to have Sam called to the telephone; Fred decides to go to lunch; now you have a one on one between Joe and Bill, and it's easier.

Remember, too, that most of the time your dialogue will become sleek, swift and contemporary if you will just provide your viewpoint character with a conversational goal. A viewpoint with a goal - information to be sought, or an opinion to be sold-will tend to keep things moving in a straight line even when the other character is being obstreperous. The strongly goal-motivated talker will not allow pages to fill with rambling talk. He will stick to the point, or keep dragging the conversation back to it. And he won't allow long speeches from anybody; he'll keep insisting on a return to the issues at hand.

Having a conversational goal helps you avoid the impulse to drag dialogue out endlessly, beating the subject to death, too. If the characters stick to the point-and one of them must insist on doing so -then the conversation not only can't wander too far away; it can't extend past the point of decision on the point at issue.

In this regard, it's vital to make sure both characters are listening. If Character A wants to talk about who stole the money, but Character B simply won't pay any attention, and keeps mumbling about his golf score last weekend, all is lost... nothing will make sense or progress. You need to make your dialogue participants listen, then respond directly.

If you fill your story with people who don't want anything, of course, all is lost anyway because there can be no focus, and therefore no linear development.

Sometimes, vaguely realizing that their dialogue is failing, novice writers get cute, witty or classic. They have their characters start mouthing trochaic hexameters, or spewing mouthfuls of classical allusions, or talking in formal riddles or paradigms. You have perhaps seen some of this dreadful stuff in an occasional published story or even book. (Every so often a miracle occurs, and such nonsense gets purchased, but not often enough that you can count on it. ) Nobody talks like these characters. Maybe Tennyson did, but he was surely the last one. Vast, poetic oceans of verbiage surge and roll, their compound-complex breakers crashing over the gerunds and participles littering the story beach. Terrified of short, simple, direct dialogue that somebody will understand and possibly even like, these overambitious fictioneers ruin their story dialogue.

Simplicity... directness... goal orientation... brevity. These are the hallmarks of modern story dialogue. Nothing else will suffice.

Check the dialogue in your own copy. One of the simplest tests may be visual, and can warn of a possible problem. Look at several pages of your story that contain dialogue. Is the right-hand margin grossly irregular, many of the character statements going only halfway across the page, and others filling only perhaps a line and a half? In newspaper terms, do your dialogue pages show a lot of white space?

If they do, good. If they don't, it may mean that your characters are being too long-winded.

Look, too, for clearly stated goals in the dialogue between your characters. If one or both characters have a goal in mind, they won't tend to wander so far from the point... and make speeches. See if you have small mob scenes that you could simplify by setting up one on ones as we just discussed.

Make sure you're following the rules of stimulus and response as outlined in Chapter Eleven.

Now, it may be that you will occasionally allow a character to ramble briefly in order to make the dialogue appear more realistic; you may even let one character briefly lose the thread of the conversation, and need a repeat of something just mentioned. These are fine little tricks. But they are not the norm. Modern dialogue tends to be brief, punchy, single-issue oriented. Impatient readers demand no less.

In writing a draft of a dialogue scene, you may find yourself with ten points in your mind all at once-aspects or questions or comments that you as the writer know must be in the scene somewhere. Sometimes, in your creative anxiety, you may catch yourself letting a character blurt out long diatribes, listing point after point you had in mind. At the stage of first draft, that may be okay; after all, part of what you're doing is just getting the thoughts down so you can start fixing them.

On revision, however, those multipoint speeches will have to be broken down into much smaller components. More exchanges will have to be devised. A page of gray speech in first draft may become five pages of lively dialogue, half of each right-hand page blank, in the revision. That will be good.

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