JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

Some Common Dialogue Problems

May
15

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to an ebook. Well, not a real ebook, a novel. I’ve spent the last couple of months listening to audio lectures on a range of subjects from the mythology of the ancient west (Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic), medieval history focused on important heroines (Joan of Arc), and currently the Arthurian legends. All of this is an effort to study the roots of what is now the fantasy genre, in the same way I studied science fiction academically last year. (There are many good audio lectures on the history of science fiction. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a similar course on fantasy.)

That distraction took me away from the novel I had started just before. Now I have finally gotten back to The Lies of Locke Lamora, and while I am enjoying it, I am coming to recognize some recurring issues with the writing.

I am probably much too critical now when it comes to reading, and watching movies for that matter. I’d like to think the reason is not that I am jaded, but as my experience as a writer and storyteller grows, I am more capable of seeing the problems in other stories. As a grad student I had it drilled into me that even the experts make mistakes. But by realizing this, and analyzing the mistakes of the experts, that we can advance in our knowledge and abilities by leaps and bounds.

1

While I am enjoying this book for the most part, particularly the titular character, I am noticing some recurring problems in the text (or more correctly, the speech, as I am listening to an audiobook). Much of this is related to the dialogue.

One problem is the Lynch’s manner of writing the dialogue. He feels the need to add unnecessary details between the spoken parts. For example, he constantly repeats the form “as though X” typically followed with a very rough metaphor. Some examples include:

“The Thiefmaker jerked back as though an asp had just sunk its fangs into his spine.”

or

“The don took the cask and cradled it as though it were an infant not five minutes born.”

or

“The don waved his hand gently as though words could be swatted out of the air.”

This particular structure becomes so repetitive in the early chapters of the book as to become nagging. And more often than not, it is embedded in dialogue. It is as though the author is unconvinced the quality of his dialogue will be enough to keep the reader’s attention. (See what I did there?)

There are times when the “as thoughs” seem to be useful for POV reasons, until you realize the book has a POV identity crisis. Sometimes the author uses his “as thoughs” to suggest a limited POV, but he abandons such pretenses for omniscience whenever it is convenient. But that is another issue for another day.

With Lynch’s dialogue, there is simply too much extra fluff between what is being said. Often, this content is wholly unnecessary, as the dialogue itself is sufficient to express the characters’ emotions. An yet, every paragraph of dialogue seems to have some sort of action, whether it be the cocking of a head, or a gleaming eye, or someone swallowing, when for the most part the speech could just be left alone. It becomes a repetitive dance of talk-action-talk-action-talk-action. You might see how that could be annoying.

That is not to say Lynch does not have his moments where he uses dialogue to its fullest potential. My favorite line in the book so far is probably:

“I swear your face grows longer as though by sorcery. What’s wrong?”

Here Lynch lets the speech alone convey the scene, adding no actions or descriptions in connection to these comments. And it works magically. We can see the other character’s expression dropping as if it is being described by the narrator in detail. And within the context of the scene, we understand what this character is feeling. It is an extremely efficient bit of writing. It is too bad that Lynch does not do this more often.

Another problem with the dialogue in this book, at least in the part of it I have finished thus far, is that there is simply too much of it. This is what killed the first Witcher novel for me. Half of that book was people sitting around tables talking politics. Literally the same group of lords, sitting around the same table, again and again. Much in the same way, Lynch’s characters talk too much. He much have been trained in the old adage “show don’t tell,” by a spartan old man with a cat o’ nine tails. The common wisdom goes that it’s better to do your “telling” through dialogue than exposition. But that does not mean do ALL your world-building in dialogue, to the point where nothing happens beyond people talking about other things happening. Sometimes it is better to just deliver your details quickly, let the pain pass, and get on with the action.

Lynch takes dialogue world-building to the extreme. There are several sections in the early part of the book where we are told of things that happened in dialogue, typically the confessions of Locke, when it would have been much better to have seen these events unfold directly. So as to be expected, much of the beginning of the book is a story readers have to approach indirectly. While it is certainly an interesting way to convey a scene or two, it is not a good method for relaying an entire plot.

But Lynch does have a good plot, and some interesting characters, which is more than a whole lot of fantasy books out there can honestly claim. That is the reason I intend to keep going with this story.

I am intrigued by Locke Lamora. I just hope to see him in action, rather than having his exploits explained to me by some character I don’t care about.

Thanks for reading. What problems do you often see in dialogue?

~JM

 

 

 

2 Responses to Some Common Dialogue Problems

  1. Nice summary. Is Lynch an anti-Hemingway? (rhetorical)

    • I don’t think I’ve read enough to judge yet. These things just came to mind, since I see them in a lot of other writing as well. None of the stuff mentioned here is exclusive to Lynch.

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