featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Our guest today is Paul D. Marks, author of over thirty published short stories in a variety of genres, ranging from noir to straight mystery, satire to serious fiction, including several award winners. In a previous life, he was a script doctor and is also the last person to have shot on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for housing. Read more about Paul at his website. -- AP

Did Ya Hear the one About the Two Navy Seals?
A Different Take on Dialogue

So, one Navy SEAL says to the other as they're free falling, hurtling toward earth, "Well, Joe, that's your ripcord and it's what you pull to open your chute, and if you screw up the ARR kicks in– "


"Automatic Ripcord Release–"

"What's that do?"

"It opens your chute if you don't do it at the preset altitude."

"Altitude? What's that?" (And with the state of today's schools that could be a serious question.)

Much has been written about expository dialogue, in which two or more people pour out gallons of info and back-story because the author needs to get that info to the reader. But one of my pet peeves is when you have two characters who explain things to one another that shouldn't need explaining. Like one SEAL telling another how to open a parachute, a silly example maybe, but I've seen it happen frequently. These two people should both know this stuff from the get-go. But because the writer, for the screen or book, needs to get some info out, they have these two people telling each other what they should already know. And believe me, if you don't know how your chute works when you're screaming toward Earth, you're in deep $#*@&#$.

Another example of this might be where you have two supposedly experienced bomb squad disposal techs and one explains to the other how to disarm a bomb. I hope by the time they're out in the field they both know what the hell they're doing. Still, another example of this is when one character says to another "Remember when you _____" (fill in the blank), simply so the writer can get info out to the audience in an "infodump".

We can see examples of this in both the recent mega hit Avatar and the classic sci-fi noir Blade Runner. And though the examples I cite below are from films (as that is my primary background,) it happens in novels all the time as well.

Selfridge, the project administrator in Avatar, explains to Dr. Grace Augustine things she would already know: "This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. No other reason. This is what pays for the party. And it’s what pays for your science. Comprendo?" Well, duh, at least from her point of view.

In Blade Runner, Captain Bryant gives Rick Deckard, a replicant hunter, a lecture about replicants, something the experienced Deckard would easily already know. Isn't he like the best replicant hunter around?

There are ways to avoid doing these things. For example, have a trainee or novice along and the character(s) can explain to the newbie what's going on as in my example below from my novel White Heat. Determine if it is really necessary to explain all the details or does the writer just want to show off all that research and esoteric knowledge?

Or go inside the characters' heads as they talk themselves through the steps or remember back to their first time doing it. There are also other ways to get things across, for example, a news story on television, an unslept-in bed, a picture frame turned upside down, an open suitcase. A gun in a drawer. Why is it there? Will it be used later? But the bottom line to remember is to dole things out in small doses. Also, while you as the author may need to know everything there is to know about your characters and their back-stories, your reader doesn't. They only need to know what is pertinent to the story.

In my new thriller, White Heat, Duke and Jack, the two detectives, are ex-Navy SEALs. And though one might have more expertise in one area and the other in another, they both went through the same training. Have a similar understanding of weapons, explosives, tactics and the like. (Diving and parachuting as well, though those skills aren't needed in the story.)

Since guns and weapons are second nature to both Duke and Jack, it wouldn't make sense for them to discuss what kind of gun is best for self-defense with each other. So instead, I had Duke take his client Laurie to a gun range and teach her how to shoot. Here is an excerpt from White Heat that gets across info to a character who needs to know it so she can protect herself.

She had planned to buy a short barreled .38 Colt revolver. Not a bad choice for someone unfamiliar with guns. A revolver is good since it's easier to use and clean than a semi-auto. .38's not a bad size bullet, especially if you go with a Plus-P. If she'd asked me, I would have recommended a .357 and maybe a little longer barrel. Short barrel's good for concealability, which she wanted. But less accurate. Everything's a tradeoff.

I want to get the above info out. But if Duke or Jack were to explain this to each other it would be silly. So Duke explains it to someone who doesn't know much about guns or self-defense. Yes, it's still exposition – and you do have to have exposition – but it's not as forced as it would be if Duke and Jack were saying it to each other. Also notice that I didn't use direct dialog, instead the narrator, Duke, who is also the main character, summarizes the things he told Laurie so we avoid a boring question and answer session between them.

Yes, there is information that needs to be imparted to the reader. But out and out exposition can be deadly, whether in dialogue or description. So it needs to be doled out in small doses and only what's necessary. The reader doesn't need to know that on Friday at 5:15pm the character bought a mocha Frappuccino® with a soupcon of caramel, a dollop of whipped cream and a light dusting of nutmeg, unless of course that character is Niles Crane, or the time they bought the Frappuccino® is relevant to the plot – maybe it's their alibi?
There is, of course, so much more to say about dialogue, good and bad. What are some of your pet peeves?

Thanks for joining us today, Paul! -- AP


Cora Blu said...

When the author tries to use slang and still feel the need to explain what it means each time they use it.
And long conversations in a crowded night club. Unless you're in a private room or sitting on top of the person, you can only hear every third word.

Nice Post
Cora Blu

Anonymous said...

One of my pet peeves. The redundant tags, he said, she said, when the dialogue should make it unnecessary.Have you ever listened to Robt. Parker? Drive you crazy. Why did he do that? Best Ann

Cafe Noir said...

@Cora Blu: Thank you for the comment and nice words. Re: slang, it seems to me that in most cases the meaning should be fairly obvious from the useage.

@Anonymous: I think the tags can go both ways, sometimes too many, sometimes too little. I had a comment on my novel White Heat that there should have been more tags in some places. It's hard to figure out the balance some times.

Thank you both.

Paul Marks

GBPool said...

Paul- A good writer can explain something without the reader knowing he has been taught. Dick Francis does it all the time in his books. Television and the movies are the worst. They have less time to tell the story and too often they think their audience is dumber than they are and they explain the obvious. Your examples were great and you did a marvelous job in your latest book- White Heat. Gayle Bartos-Pool

Lucy Francis said...

Great post! It's so easy to fall prey to the info-dump in general. And then we think we're clever, trying to disguise the info-dump in dialogue. I like what you did with the bit of internal consideration about guns there.

Cafe Noir said...

@Gayle, Thank you for your kind words about White Heat. I agree, movies and TV can be pretty bad with the exposition in dialogue. They definitely don't trust their audience.

@Lucy: I think part of the challenge is to figure out interesting and hopefully unobtrusive ways to get that info out. And thank you also for the nice words re: the post.

Paul Marks

Mary Marvella said...

You explained things in an interesting way. Writers work too hard to make sure a reader isn't confused to the point that we over explain.

Cafe Noir said...

@Mary: I agree with you. And it's hard to strike that balance of just enough vs. too much and even not enough. But I think if we let it out slowly that sort of works. Plus there's also things that we, as authors, need to know that the reader doesn't necessarily need. Thanks for your comment.

Paul Marks