Tell, don’t show (DOG EAR)

Tell, don’t show (DOG EAR)

o what is dialog? It’s the act of story advancement where the words (rather than actions) of your characters advance the plot. Oh, sure, you can use this for other things; setting a mood, advancing the plot, defining a relationship, and so on.

Like action, Dialog needs to be carefully mapped before attempting. You need to figure out just what you want to say, the order of the points to be made, the information to be passed to the reader and so on. When all this is down (on scrap paper or in your head), only then should you put in the yackity-yack words that decorate this.

I became very aware of this when I picked up my effort on Tubitz and Mergenstein after a very long hiatus (a kidney stone and two out-of-town trips, and (to be truthful) a good degree of inertia). Thus, last Sunday afternoon I sat down, scrolled to the bottom, then rolled up two chapters and began reading. Okay, the first of the two was fine – we find out through a wounded pirate captain (hissing around the tweezer pinches of an incompetent port-side surgeon) about how a pirate attack was broken up when an Empiric battle cruiser showed up (crewed by skiptrackers, no less) which blasted their fleet. And how the darling of the plot, the temporary love interest, was killed. It was actually very good dialog/action, with the hissing and surgical flinching to add tension.

The next chapter ended halfway through. Mergenstein, distraught, finds his way to the port’s priest (actually, in this steampunker, it’s a “high padre”). He’s upset, naturally, and the chapter starts well with the high padre digging straight to the matter – that what Mergenstein feels is not sorrow and loss but guilt. Spirited disagreement, the padre’s earthy language, it all flows along. And then, like a forest path meandering to nothing, it ends. Meaning to words to blankness. And I sat back in my chair, reading the last few paragraphs over and over, and wondering what I’d been thinking. Where was this supposed to go?

I know that whatever got said, it provokes action on Mergenstein’s part, a need to resolve things with Tubiz, as well as to get their ship repaired so they can go out and face the skiptrackers and assassins dogging them. But I’m not sure how this was supposed to work. Sunday night I picked up the thread and wrote it. Yes, they talkity-talked and said their bye-byes, but when I read it late Monday night, it still didn’t go anywhere. Yes, it had a thread and resolution, but I didn’t see how it forced the action to move in the coming chapter.

I spent some time swapping words and phrases out and decided to sleep on it.

Tuesday I was riding my bike to work, the sun just coming up, the roads pretty easy. And suddenly it hit me – the padre had been telling him what was wrong. But the critical element – he had to close it down by telling him to “fix” it. That specific word – fix. Really, I’d been hinting around it and coaxing the story along, but like a sharp word to a disobedient dog, I had to come out and say it. That night I went back to where the priest is slipping his robe over his head, getting ready to enter the church. There was some closing stuff there but I carriage-returned it out of the way. It was a perfect place to throw a sharp eye, to pause with a hand on the latch, and to say, “So, how are you going to fix it?” And this the high padre did. And the next thing I knew, Mergenstein was getting a clear assignment for action, spitting back dialog and actually inflaming the priest with counter-accusations, which made for a nice tensioning close to the chapter.

So that’s really the lesson here – don’t get lost trying to force a logical dialog sequence. Keep track of the points you need to make, and made sure you can cut to them with all the edginess and flair your readers expect.