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Saturday, July 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Does the Dialogue in This Scene Work?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines

Submissions currently in the queue: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 27.

This week’s question:

Does this scene with dialogue work?

Market/Genre: Contemporary Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Ryan hopped in the car quoting a line from the “Merchant of Venice” –‘with wondrous virtues, sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages.’

“Speak English.” Kevin barked.

“It is English, dummy. Shakespeare’s English.”

“Right.” Kevin shook his head.

“I’m in love.”

Kevin slammed on the brakes. “Back off, buddy. I met her first.”

“Too late, pal. We’re going to a movie tomorrow night.” Ryan fibbed, then recited, ‘The heart wants what it wants’ and with a cocky smile turned to Kevin and said. “A famous quote by Emily Dickinson.”

“Who cares?” Flicking his cigarette butt through the side window, he warned, “Julie is innocent and pure as an uncut jewel. She’s not to be spoiled. I know your reputa...”

“Hey. Enough."

"She needs to be treated with kid gloves.”

“As she deserves to be. I’m no amateur, you jerk. Now drop it.” Ryan turned on the radio, lit another cigarette, took a long drag, closed his eyes and reminisced of the exquisite angel who walked into his life tonight.

Seething inside, Kevin drove to the base in silence. He was fed-up playing patsy and taking a back seat to his bunk buddy when it came to attractive girls. With an insatiable need for control and possessing the kind of matinee-idol magnetism and charm, Ryan turned ladies’ heads and got what he wanted. Whoever and whatever he desired, he got and now he desired Julie and it infuriated Kevin.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Ryan hopped in the car quoting a line from the “Merchant of Venice” –‘with wondrous virtues, sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages.’

“Speak English[.] comma” Kevin barked.

“It is English, dummy. Shakespeare’s English.”

“Right.” Kevin shook his head.

“I’m in love.”

[Kevin slammed on the brakes.] Three "action" tags in a row have Kevin “doing something.” No “he said” tags is just as distracting as too many “Back off, buddy. I met her first.”

“Too late, pal. We’re going to a movie tomorrow night[.] comma” Ryan fibbed, then recited, ‘The heart wants what it wants’ and with a cocky smile turned to Kevin [and said.] don’t need. “A famous quote by Emily Dickinson.”

“Who cares?” [Flicking his cigarette butt through the side window, he warned,] awkward. Also, “he warned” is redundant since you show him warning in the dialogue “Julie is innocent and pure as an uncut jewel. She’s not to be spoiled. I know your [reputa...] -- suggests interruption, while ellipses suggest a pause or speech trailing off  

“Hey. Enough."

"She needs to be treated with kid gloves.”

“As she deserves to be. [I’m no amateur,] this suggests his motives aren’t honest you jerk. Now drop it.” Ryan turned on the radio, lit another cigarette, took a long drag, closed his eyes and reminisced of the exquisite angel who walked into his life tonight.

[Seething inside, Kevin drove to the base in silence.] POV shift here. It’s been in Ryan’s POV until now He was fed-up playing patsy and taking a back seat to his bunk buddy when it came to attractive girls. With an insatiable need for control and possessing the kind of matinee-idol magnetism and charm, Ryan turned ladies’ heads and got what he wanted. Whoever and whatever he desired, he got and now he desired Julie and it infuriated Kevin.

The Question:

1. Does this scene with dialogue work?


It depends on the goal. It does show that Kevin and Ryan have a disagreement over Julie, and that Ryan is a bit of a jerk and a womanizer. These two don’t seem to get along, and even though they’re together, I don’t think they’re friends. The conflict between them is clear, and for a romance, I can see these two competing over a woman.

From a technical standpoint, it’s a little clunky in spots, and the punctuation is incorrect in several places. It feels as though you’re trying too hard to avoid using a “he said” tag, which is making the scene read abruptly. Kevin speaks + acts multiple times, and it doesn’t flow well rhythmically.

(Here's more on Formatting Dialogue in Fiction: He Said, She Said)

There’s also little internalization, which makes the POV feel distant. I’m not getting a sense of who the POV character or protagonist is, and it reads more like the author explaining the scene than one particular character living it. It starts off in Ryan’s POV, showing his thoughts and his perspective, but the final paragraph is Kevin’s. 

(Here's more on Give Me a Beat: Rhythm in Dialogue)

Overall, the lack of a solid POV character (or narrator if this is omniscient) is what’s throwing this off, and if you revised it from one character’s POV and fleshed out the scene, the dialogue would work fine. I think it’s accomplishing what you wanted—to show the issues between Kevin and Ryan.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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2 comments:

  1. Definitely a sense of conflict here, a good start for a romance. One of the hardest choices in a story is where to raise the curtain, and this could be the perfect moment for this one.

    Like Janice said, getting into a character's head more would help. If Kevin is the protagonist, we need to see Ryan's attitude as something to *react* to from the start, in spite of how Ryan gets most of the early lines.

    It's easy to think that half a page can be all dialogue and then it's time to shift to thoughts or letting things happen. But a scene gets a lot of its power from the tiny thoughts or clues in the middle of what else is going on, that lock us into the right focus or add an extra wrinkle right in the moment. Without those, you have several paragraphs of Ryan rambling before we see how important Kevin's reaction is; that's letting the readers go through those first lines not sure what the story's center is, instead of grabbing them fast. And if you get us a little into his head sooner, you can do less Telling us how he feels at the end.

    Also, one line in this scene really bothered me: Kevin's "innocent and pure as an uncut jewel... not to be spoiled... your reputation..." Those are the kind of words that, if we say them aloud (always a good idea), we realize people mostly just wouldn't say. If you want to contrast Ryan spouting someone else's poetry through a smirk (which *is* believable, for him) with Kevin speaking poignant words from the heart, you need to be positive Kevin's phrasing still sounds real-- especially for how much he'd open up to an army frenemy like Ryan. He might well say nothing more than "Come on, I said I saw her first" out loud. (Plus, it's a little awkward to call "Julie" a "jewel," unless Kevin catches himself thinking that's a dumb, obvious line.)

    Since this is a first scene and has to work so hard to cover everything, there's risk that some points might get lost, and it's especially hard to work them in without interfering with the important parts. But two things I think matter:

    One, you say Ryan "fibbed" about already having a date with Julie. The word makes a huge difference, as to whether he's already gotten ahead of Kevin or not. If you mean he has, you want a word that makes it casual but doesn't make it any kind of lie, and maybe have Kevin react or think about how Ryan's gotten that far already. Or if he's exaggerating (and I don't know why you'd pick something that important to make a joke about), you'd have to spell out that Kevin himself knows Ryan hasn't had a chance to ask her out yet. We want to be on the right page with this.

    The other is, I had to spot the words "base" and "bunkmates" to realize these were two soldiers. That's a major (so to speak) part of the story's context, especially the way romance likes to subdivide its genres. So you might want a hint in the early lines that runs to more than a couple of words at a time, to catch the reader's eye and make that clear that this setting is part of it all.

    A story that zeroes in on its conflict this well is off to a great start. I hope you think about the best ways to make the most of it.

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  2. Anonymous11:51 AM EDT

    Janice and Ken ~ I guess I should have mentioned this is the follow-up scene to my opening (sent earlier to Diagnostics) where I established the Air-Force base with Ryan and Kevin as bunkmates. Regardless, the above comments are helpful and appreciated. Thank you.

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