MRUs Lesson 2

Yesterday, I began working through my talk on those pesky “Motivation-Reaction Units” that I gave at the recent ACFW conference. Today, I’ll continue on and get into some examples.

Slide 12: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 61

In this slide, I show an example of dialogue that is harder to read than it should be. There are no quotation marks. There are no paragraph breaks when the speakers change. In the example, taken from a courtroom scene, Charles Darnay is on trial for his life on charges of spying. Darnay is innocent, but the prosecutor has brought out a false witness who testifies against him. Now Darnay’s attorney begins the cross examination and neatly makes mincemeat of him:

Had he ever been a spy himself? No, he scorned the base insinuation. What did he live upon? His property. Where was his property? He didn’t precisely remember where it was. What was it? No business of anybody’s. Had he inherited it? Yes, he had. From whom? Distant relation. Very distant? Rather. Ever been in prison? Certainly not. Never in a debtor’s prison? Didn’t see what that had to do with it. Never in a debtor’s prison?–Come, once again. Never? Yes. How many times? Two or three times. Not five or six? Perhaps. Of what profession? Gentleman. Ever been kicked? Might have been. Frequently? No. Ever kicked downstairs? Decidedly not; once received a kick on the top of a staircase, and fell downstairs of his own accord. Kicked on that occasion for cheating at dice? Something to that effect was said by the intoxicated liar who committed the assault, but it was not true.

Randy sez: This dialogue is quite funny, but much of the punch is lost because the formating is done so badly. The important fact to notice is that this IS a dialogue. You can see this easily in the next slide where I color-code the words spoken by the two speakers. The attorney’s questions are in black; the witness’s answers are in red. You now see the back-and-forth of the dialogue visually on the screen.

Slide 13: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 61

Had he ever been a spy himself? No, he scorned the base insinuation. What did he live upon? His property. Where was his property? He didn’t precisely remember where it was. What was it? No business of anybody’s. Had he inherited it? Yes, he had. From whom? Distant relation. Very distant? Rather. Ever been in prison? Certainly not. Never in a debtor’s prison? Didn’t see what that had to do with it. Never in a debtor’s prison?–Come, once again. Never? Yes. How many times? Two or three times. Not five or six? Perhaps. Of what profession? Gentleman. Ever been kicked? Might have been. Frequently? No. Ever kicked downstairs? Decidedly not; once received a kick on the top of a staircase, and fell downstairs of his own accord. Kicked on that occasion for cheating at dice? Something to that effect was said by the intoxicated liar who committed the assault, but it was not true.

Randy sez: Notice how much better this dialogue would work if only Dickens had taken the trouble to add a little structure to it — quotation marks, proper paragraphing. Now look at the extraordinary difference it makes when Dickens does exactly that, only 2 pages later. In this next example, the prosecutor is interrogating a witness very unfairly, trying to get him to “recognize” Charles Darnay as the gentleman with whom he had shared a carriage ride a few years earlier:

Slide 14: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 63

“Mr. Lorry, look upon the prisoner. Was he one of the two passengers?”

“I cannot undertake to say that he was.”

“Does he resemble either of these two passengers?”

“Both were so wrapped up, and the night was so dark, and we were all so reserved, that I cannot undertake to say even that.”

“Mr. Lorry, look again upon the prisoner. Supposing him wrapped up as those passengers were, is there anything in his bulk and stature to render it unlikely that he was one of them?”

“No.”

“You will not swear, Mr. Lorry, that he was not one of them?”

“No.”

Randy sez: There is a bit of humor here, but it’s not nearly as sharp as in the earlier passage. Note that this bit of dialogue is quite a bit easier to read than the previous one. Why? In a word, structure. This passage is structured properly with quotation marks and paragraph breaks. In the next slide, I’ll color-code this dialogue as I did before, and you’ll see that the color-coding is completely unnecessary, because the structure already does all the work.

Slide 15: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 63

“Mr. Lorry, look upon the prisoner. Was he one of the two passengers?”

“I cannot undertake to say that he was.”

“Does he resemble either of these two passengers?”

“Both were so wrapped up, and the night was so dark, and we were all so reserved, that I cannot undertake to say even that.”

“Mr. Lorry, look again upon the prisoner. Supposing him wrapped up as those passengers were, is there anything in his bulk and stature to render it unlikely that he was one of them?”

“No.”

“You will not swear, Mr. Lorry, that he was not one of them?”

“No.”

Randy sez: As I said earlier, the structure imposed on this by the author makes the color-coding superfluous. The back-and-forth of the dialogue is obvious by the form on the page. The reader doesn’t have to work as hard. The reader can enter more easily into the fictive dream. That’s what you want to do — make it as easy as possible for your reader to get lost inside your story.

Slide 16: The Structure of Dialogue

Dialogue has a simple structure that few writers these days would violate:

  • All words spoken by characters are in
    quote marks.
  • Each speaker gets his own paragraph.
  • Dialogue tags are used when needed. These can be simple attributions or action tags.

Randy sez: The purpose of this structure is to provide the reader with visual cues that enable her to understand the dialogue more easily. No writer would consider this structure as “limiting” or “artificial”. The structure is just there to enhance the reading experience.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a couple of action scenes. One of these is well-done and one is poorly done. The odd thing is that the same author wrote both scenes, and they appear in the same book. But one is well-structured and the other is badly structured, and that makes an enormous difference to the reading experience.

See ya then!

8 Comments

  1. Judith September 25, 2008 at 9:57 pm #

    Randy,

    Loved the poetic illustrations from yesterday. Haiku is one of my favorite forms — probably because of my short attention span. Never mastered the limerick — too humorless, I guess.

    I’m looking forward to reviewing TPMRUs — haven’t mastered them yet. But you give me hope.

  2. Ann Isik September 26, 2008 at 3:41 am #

    This MRU course has turned up at exactly the right time for me!

    I’m ‘Snowflaking’ and about to get back to the actual writing (my planning is driving my characters nuts with impatience). It’s turning out that I’m half SOTP and half plotter as a writer.

    I’m at the stage where I’m doing the Excel document of the list of scenes. What a revelation! I find I’ve already written first drafts of 7 chapters and there are a further 6 at least, to come!

    What sort of a mess was I in to have written this much without even knowing it?

    So far, using Snowflake, I’ve seen how I have had to change my novel series’ name and also the title of my wip – book one of the series. The theme has changed. This Excel layout is ‘excellent’ (sorry for the pun) and I’ve not used Excel before – it sounded suspiciously like I’d have to do something mathematical, which terrifies me, but it isn’t and it’s easy to master.

    I’d never finish this novel without Snowflake. Never My brain’s too all-over-the-place. And it’s really fun!

    What can I say but, once again,’thanks’ for Snowflake and right this moment, for MRUs.

    Ann

  3. Amy VR September 26, 2008 at 4:27 am #

    So far so good… you haven’t lost me yet! 🙂

  4. Mark Goodyear September 26, 2008 at 6:01 am #

    Another thing I’ve found about good dialog is that it quickens the pace of a scene.

    Dickens’ thick paragraph of dialog reads slow because the text is all on top of itself. The divided paragraphs read much more quickly and easily.

    A few months ago, I went on a Cormac McCarthy binge and wondered why he formats his dialog differently. It certainly serves to create distance between the reader and the characters–but why would an author want to do that?

  5. Camille September 26, 2008 at 9:44 am #

    I’ve read some contemporary Brit and Scot authors lately and notice many don’t use quotation marks, which took a little getting used to at first for this yank. But when it’s sharp, it isn’t hard to follow. With this kind of formatting, I think that if the dialogue isn’t sharp, it would get lost in the text. Makes me wonder how much sharper I would have to make my dialogue if I didn’t have the punctuation to help make it stand out.

  6. Daniel Smith September 26, 2008 at 12:08 pm #

    I was wondering what the structure rules are for mixing character thoughts in with dialogue. In writing a case study this summer I used the standard structure for dialogue and mixed in character thoughts as italicized text. I think I’ve seen some Agatha Christie novels with this.

    Is that even a good practice? It seems to me it almost violates the “show don’t tell” rule, but it certainly worked for my situation.

  7. Davalynn September 27, 2008 at 9:12 am #

    When I read the Dickens graph, it didn’t strike me as dialogue. It was more of a telling graph, like the examiner was telling us what the witness said, without using, “he said.” In some comments attributed to the witness, “he” is used, and you wouldn’t say that about yourself when speaking, unless you were Donald Trump. But the point is, when I read it, it worked for me. I think Dickens is trying to encapsulate the whole cross-examination, the quickfire back-and-forth, unbelievable excuses, the rallying.

    I know we can’t write like that today and expect to keep a reader, even though Cormac McCarthy does. He kept me as a reader because the books were required for a class. I began “The Road” (ugh) with my teacher-pen, editing as I read. No quotes, no apostrophes for don’t and a few other contrations. Same thing with “All the Pretty Horses.” However, after awhile, the rhythm of his writing carried me along, I put my pen down, and I knew where I was going.

    Won’t try that technique myself, though.

    I’m looking forward to the MRUs. I always learn something.

    Davalynn

  8. PatriciaW September 30, 2008 at 11:47 am #

    I agree with Mark, that dialogue quickens pacing. However, I actually thought the single paragraph read faster. It became very clear that this was rapid fire, back and forth interrogation.

    Had Dickens misfired by having one or both of the participants speak twice in a row, thereby throwing off the pattern and rhythm, it would have been very difficult to read and follow.

    I wonder why he used both structures. Perhaps Davalynn is on to something, that this was really intended not as dialogue but as a narrative recounting of a dialogue.

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