The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue – Part 2

In my blog post of February 10, 2014 (The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue – Part 1), I included an excerpt from Lawrence Block’s mystery novel A Long Line of Dead Men. Block depends heavily on dialogue to drive the story lines in his novels, yet his narrative rarely steps outside the dialogue to give the reader details of physical setting, and he rarely shows how the characters are reacting to one another as they talk. There aren’t many smiles or shrugs or hand gestures in Block’s dialogue scenes. Instead, he depends on the dialogue itself and the reader’s imagination to flesh out the scenes. Check the February 10 post for a good example of Lawrence Block’s technique in writing dialogue.

Block is a successful, award-winning author. Does that mean you should follow his example as you craft scenes of dialogue in your own novel?

Who Are Your Readers?

The tight back-and-forth dialogue works for Lawrence Block because he writes mystery novels. His readers are more interested in story development than physical setting. Who committed the murder? How will the protagonist track him/her down? That’s what Block’s readers want to know, and dialogue is a great way to keep a murder mystery moving along at a quick pace.

But what about dialogue scenes in a romance novel? A fantasy novel? Should they follow Block’s example?

No, and no.

What it comes down to is reader expectations. Readers of romance novels want to get to know the main characters, and they want to see how the conflicts between these characters play out in their interaction with one another. So if you’re writing a romance novel, you have to let the reader get to know the main characters intimately. One of the best ways to do that is in scenes of dialogue. If the characters are embroiled in a bitter argument, the reader wants to see and hear everything that’s happening, including tears, flushed faces, and angry gestures. If the characters decide on a romantic getaway to some exotic place, the reader wants to see the hotel, the room, and the island or cityscape, and they want to see how the characters are reacting to the surroundings. The dialogue is important, of course, as the characters argue or talk about how much they love one another, but even through the dialogue, the details of physical setting and character interaction must come through. The reader of romance novels wants the full picture.

So do readers of science fiction and fantasy novels. They want to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the environment in which the story plays out—especially if it’s an exotic, futuristic, or alien setting. Scenes of dialogue can offer great opportunities to give these details to the reader.

Snakes, Snakes, and More Snakes

Let’s take a look at a scene from Ben Bova’s novel Orion and the Conqueror. Before giving you Ben Bova’s version, though, let’s see how the scene might look if the author had employed Lawrence Block’s tight dialogue technique.

At the far end of the room sat Olympias on her throne.

“Come to me, Orion,” she called.

I walked to her slowly.

“Do you fear me?” she asked.

“No.”

“Do you love me?”

“No. I love Athena.”

“A mortal man cannot love a goddess, Orion. You need a woman of flesh and blood. You love me.”

“I mean no offense, but—”

“You will love me! And no other. You will do my bidding. Not merely here, but wherever and whenever I command you. Come with me.”

She led me to a bedchamber and removed her robe.

“Do you like what you see, Orion?”

“Yes.”

She took my clothes off me and looked at the dagger strapped to my thigh.

“The gift of Odysseus,” I explained. “At Troy.”

She unstrapped the dagger and discarded it. “Now you are mine, Orion.”

This kind of quick back-and-forth dialogue, with a few minimal details of scene and action, would be fine if it was a scene in which a private detective in one of Lawrence Block’s novels questioned another character. But this scene represents an important turning point in a fantasy novel, and Ben Bova didn’t want to move the reader through it so quickly. He needed to establish Olympias as a major antagonist who will hound the protagonist Orion throughout the story. He wanted a memorable scene that would give the reader much more than a few lines of dialogue. Let’s see how he chose to write it.

At the far end sat Olympias on a throne of ivory inlaid with gold. She glowed with splendor. Snakes slithered on the dais of her throne, on the steps of the marble platform, on the high back of her throne itself. Some were small and deadly poisonous. Others were huge constrictors, their eyes glittering in the lamplight.

This colossal opulent room could not possibly have been part of Philip’s palace. Somehow I had passed through a gateway into another world, another universe. This was witchcraft, I realized, beyond anything that Philip’s rough soldiers could imagine.

“Come to me, Orion,” Olympias called. Her voice was low and melodious, yet it carried the distance from her throne to me as if she had been standing at my side.

I walked as if in a trance. It seemed to take hours. I heard nothing but the clacking of my boots against the marble floor. I watched the snakes watching me with their glittering eyes.

At last I stood at the foot of her throne. Olympias wore a copper-red robe that matched the color of her hair and left her shoulders and arms bare. Its slitted skirt revealed her long smooth legs. Bright jewelry bedecked her throat, her arms and wrists. She looked down on me and smiled a cruelly beautiful smile.

“Do you fear me, Orion?”

“No,” I replied truthfully. One of the pythons was entwining its mottled body of brown and green around my leg, climbing me as if I were a tree. And I stood immobile as a tree, unable to turn away, unable to run, unable even to move my arms or fingers. Yet I felt no fear. I was truly under her spell.

Olympias leaned back in her throne as a sleek cobra slithered over her bare shoulder and across her bosom.

“Do you love me, Orion?”

“No,” I said. “I love—Athena.”

Her smile turned cold. “A mortal man cannot love a goddess, Orion. You need a woman of flesh and blood. You love me.”

“I mean no offense, but—”

“You will love me!” she snapped. “And no other.”

I found that I was unable to speak. The python had coiled itself around my chest. Its head rose to my eye level and its flickering tongue touched my face. I stared into its slitted yellow eyes and saw nothing, no purpose, no reason. It was being controlled just as I was.

“You will love me,” Olympias repeated. “And you will do my bidding. Not merely here, but wherever and whenever I command you.”

It was if my body did not belong to me, as if it were a machine under someone else’s control. I could think, I could feel the massive strength of the python’s muscular coils gripping me tightly, feel the tingling jabs of its tongue on my face. I could hear Olympias’ words and see her leaning forward on her throne, her eyes as glittery as the snakes’. But I could not move. I knew that if she willed it, my heart would stop.

The cobra glided across her lap and down the leg of the throne. I saw that what I had at first thought to be a bright metal armband was actually a small snake that she now removed from her forearm and considered silently for a moment.

Then she got up from her throne, holding the little coral snake in both hands, and came down the three steps of the dais to me.

“You will love me,” she repeated, “and do whatever I command you to do.”

She held the snake to my throat. I felt its tiny fangs penetrate my flesh and a hot surge of flaming agony raced along my veins with the speed of an electrical shock. I realized why Olympias had made the python coil around me. Without it I would have collapsed to the cold marble floor.

I never lost consciousness. The pain passed and my body felt frozen, totally numb. Yet when Olympias commanded me to follow her, I found that the python had slid off me and I could walk almost normally. She led me to a bedchamber that seemed suspended in emptiness. I felt a solid floor beneath my feet, but when I looked down I saw nothing but tiny pinpoints of light winking in swirling clouds of cold mist that billowed pink and blue and golden yellow.

We reclined on a bed as soft and yielding as the gentle swells of a becalmed sea, stars gleaming out of the darkness all around us. Olympias unfastened her robe; her body was magnificent, perfect skin glowing in the darkness, a form as divine as a goddess.

“Do you like what you see, Orion?” she asked as she knelt beside me.

I could not help but answer, “Yes.”

She took my clothes off me, clucking her tongue slightly at the dagger strapped to my thigh.

“The gift of Odysseus,” I explained. “At Troy.”

Wordlessly she unstrapped the dagger and tossed it off into the darkness surrounding our bed.

“Now you are mine, Orion,” she murmured.

I love the way Ben Bova uses the snakes in that scene. Any woman who can exert that kind of control over a serpent is definitely someone to fear!

In the scene we reviewed last week from a Lawrence Block novel, dialogue is everything. Block gives the reader tight lines of dialogue with few visual hits on the scene or characters. In the scene from Ben Bova’s novel, dialogue is used more as a highlight to reinforce what’s happening and how the characters interact with one another. He uses this scene to introduce the reader to a major antagonist in the story, and thus gives the reader a good idea of what Orion will be up against as the story continues to emerge. Dialogue is an important element in that scene, but what the reader will really remember are Olympias’s arrogance, her control over Orion, the exotic physical setting, and the snakes.

Back to my theme: Dialogue is a tool, and it can be used in many ways. Take full advantage of its flexibility and use it to accomplish the task at hand.

Next week: The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue – Part 3