|Queen of Sorcery, by David Eddings|
1) Consider dialogue a chainsaw. Handy, yes... but be careful, or it'll do more harm then good, and it's not always the right tool for the situation. For this rule I've chosen David Edding's book Queen of Sorcery (book 2 of The Belgariad, whatever that might be). Let's consider this scene on page 17 (typed up from my copy; to the best of my knowledge all errors are mine):
"That's my cow," a voice said suddenly from somewhere off in the fog.
Garion froze and stood silently, listening.
"Keep her in your own pasture, then," another voice replied shortly.
"Is that you, Lammer?" the first voice asked.
"Right. You're Detton, aren't you?"
"I didn't recognize you. How long's it been?"
"Four or five years, I suppose," Lammer judged.
"How are things going in your village?" Detton asked.
"We're hungry. The taxes took all of our food."
"Ours too. We've been eating boiled tree roots."
"We haven't tried that yet. We're eating our shoes."
"How's your wife?" Detton asked politely.
"She died last year," Lammer replied in a flat, unemotional voice. "My lord took our son for a soldier, and he was killed in a battle somewhere. They poured boiling pitch on him. After that, my wife stopped eating. It didn't take her long to die."
"I'm sorry," Detton sympathized. "She was very beautiful."
"They're both better off," Lammer declared. "They aren't cold or hungry anymore. What kind of tree roots have you been eating?"
"Birch is the best," Detton told him. "Spruce has too much pitch, and oak is too tough. You boil some grass with the roots to give them a bit of flavor."
"I'll have to try it."
"I've got to get back," Detton said. "My lord's got me clearing trees, and he'll have me flogged if I stay away too long."
"Maybe I'll see you again sometime."
"If we both live."
That's where my example ends, but if anyone's interested, our hero (I use that term with great sarcasm) becomes so upset by the state of things that he then jumps and attempts to kill the next innocent person who happens to pass by.
Now, first, I'll just say that the book was published in 1982, which is why I'm using the scene as a sample instead of discussing the book as a whole, because that wouldn't be fair.
So, let's talk about this scene. My (sort of) line by line reactions are as follows:
1) "Where's my cow? Is that my cow? No, it's a great example of misused dialogue!"
2) You're in grave danger of dropping some eaves here.
3) Ah, they have pastures. But wait... I thought it was freezing. What do the animals eat?
4) No, it is I, [fill in the reference]
5) Yes, this is very touching and all...
7) "Judge" is a heavy word.
8) Village? They're from separate villages, each with pasture space, and they just happened to wander all the way here, with a cow?
10) What? Is that even possible?
11) Edible shoes= leather= ability to use some parts of your animals= meat.
12) What? Was that an attempt at a clever change in topic before you got too depressed?
13) I'm so, so sorry. (That counts as a clever reference because I find it funny).
15) My, you're all about this changing topic thing, aren't you?
16) Sorry, but a quick Google search tells me that's ridiculous. If you cut up the inner bark you can boil them and eat them like spaghetti, though. So close, author, but then you ruined it by using a specific example that I knew wasn't accurate.
17-22) How... depressing.
The problem with this dialogue is that it tries too hard. A much better use for it would have been to have a few more vague lines hinting at their poverty, and have our hero ask about it later, to have a detailed description that actually belonged in the story.
2) It's good to have dialogue sound realistic, but not that realistic. I was writing a scene the other day and I found myself with the line "um...yeah, there actually is". Perfectly realistic, but unnnecessary. The "um" simply does not belong there, because you want to keep your dialogue free of annoying extras. The sentence works fine without it, and so I took it out. "Yeah, there actually is." Sounds just as good, right?
3) Speech tags. I absolutely hate them. I can't stand most of them (unless used in a comedic fashion). Even said jars me, although it's useful every once in a while to tell us who's saying what.
But please, make sure they're accurate:
"I'm an Asturian," Lelldorin replied modestly. "We've been bowmen for thousands of years. My father had the limbs of this bow cut the day I was born, and I could draw it by the time I was eight."
And quit while you're ahead.
"You're an idiot, Berentain!" The first, a dark-haired youth in a scarlet doublet, snapped.
"It may please thee to think so, Torasin," the second, a stout young man with pale, curly hair and wearing a green and yellow striped tunic, replied, "but whether it please thee or not, Asturia's future is in Mimbrate hands. Thy rancorous denouncements and sulfurous rhetoric shall not alter that fact."
"Don't thee me or thou me, Berentain," the dark-haired one sneered. "Your imitation Mimbrate courtesy turns my stomach."
Now, as it happens, I actually rather like this scene, although it took a few readings to really get it. I'd like to stress this- in the context of this book, not only does this work, but it's actually quite a good bit. However, out of context.... ouch. Just look at the speech tags. That second one doesn't even make sense!
Also, he made the "evil one" fat, as is unnecessarily emphasized later. Not okay.
There's a lot more to complain about in life, but this is long enough already, so to be continued.
What's your pet peeve with dialogue? What's the worst dialogue you've ever seen? Let me know in the comments section below.