If you listen to people talking, you are aware that they don't all use the Queen's English. Yet so many newbie writers tend to write any dialogue in their stories exactly that way. I probably did too.
I don't think I'm too bad at dialogue now, but I still chose J.S Law's workshop for two reasons:
1. I always hope there's something else I might learn about a subject, however confident I feel about it.
2. James is a fellow cloudie who recently published his first novel - Tenacity, a gritty crime thriller set in the world of naval submarines (I've read it - flippin' good!) - and I wanted to support him.
As an ex-navy man himself, James's style was brisk and to the point as you might expect - and boy, did he pack a lot into an hour. We could have gone on much longer; I found I didn't really have time to do the exercises we were given properly before we were sharing them. But that's a function of my need for a bit of thinking time before embarking on an exercise and is not to say I didn't learn anything - far from it.
The rules (yep, we started with rules) of the workshop were pretty simple and could be summarised by 'your words stand alone'. Don't apologise for what you'd written, James said. If you read aloud, then we - the rest of the room - discuss. Be supportive, be honest. And be brief and to the point. (Which made me wonder how many sessions he'd had sat through where one person dominated proceedings...I'm sure we've all probably been there?)
On to the meaty bit of the session...
Dialogue needs to tell us about the person who's speaking, and who they're speaking to. It should always - ALWAYS - move the plot forward. It should be compatible with the character, their environment, and be able to foreshadow events or declare intentions. It's no good having your Victorian urchin speaking in contemporary teenager-ese, for example. ('Yeah, so like, did you read abaht the latest Dickens book? Great Expectations? It's sick, man!') But don't go too far with 'insider knowledge' in dialogue either - we were shown a sample of a real conversation between two navy guys which read like gobble-de-gook to us but was perfectly understandable to those 'in the know'. For instance - do you know what 'Harry black noose' means? (Answer at the end of this blog...) Be wary of using dialect or accent so much that you isolate the reader.
(Having said that though, some authors use dialect and speech patterns to great effect - take a look at Brian Jacques' Redwall series and note how each kind of animal speaks. Great for reading aloud too - you just say what you see!)
We were shown how you can glean all sorts of information from dialogue - it can hint at gender, background, schooling, race, workplace, motivation... It is never lazy. It earns its place in a manuscript and if set up right, what is spoken should not need to be tagged. As in, you could lose 'she exclaimed' from "What a pretty dress!" if it's effectively framed by action. And 'Put the gun down' does not need 'he ordered'. 'He/she said' is almost invisible by comparison.
Every character speaks differently. Some of us waffle, others are more to the point. And in your writing of dialogue, you should bring in these differences. Not only does it make the characters unique in themselves, but by changing the way they routinely speak can hint at how they feel about situations that are occurring.
I can honestly say that I have never laughed so much during a workshop, or worked my brain so hard! I've taken away from the session the need to really make my dialogue work - make sure it is the character speaking, not me. And that I had never realised how much work dialogue does in the stories I've both read and written. I'm still not sure I can be as analytical about dialogue as James appeared to be, but having read his book, I can see the difference it makes, so I'm going to have a damn good go!
(And the answer? Black tie... which makes perfect sense once you know.)