Wednesday, August 16, 2006


"There studious let me sit, and hold high converse with the mighty dead."
James Thomson 1700-1748 "The Seaons: Winter" 1726 l 431

Dialogue has always been a strong forte of mine. Rarely do you find me speechless. I must have inherited the gift of the gab from my father who loved to get into long conversations. I recall how often he'd fail to come home when scheduled and it was usually because he was wrapped up in conversation with someone he'd met along the way.

I started writing plays when I was about 10, maybe sooner. So dialogues have always come easy to me. I'm not often shy about regaling my friends with discussions and stories, nor am I usually shy about striking up conversations with strangers on buses, trains or planes. There's always something interesting to talk about.

When writing, it's important to have your characters talk, and more importantly, to speak in their own particular voice, a distinct level of diction unique to themselves. So far in my writing I've managed this well, but occasionally it daunts me, especially when writing dialogue suitable for men's voices, and in particular the voices of Macedonian generals and Athenian senators. Most of the time I think I've 'nailed' it. At least, when men have read or listened to my novel excerpts they haven't criticised the way the men speak. So I assume that the characters are coming over as themselves, not in my own voice, but theirs. There's nothing worse than 'wooden' dialogue.

"Like a strutting player, whose conceit
Lies in his hamstring, and doth think it rich
To hear the wooden dialogue and sound
"Twixt his stretch'd footing and the scaffoldage."
William Shakespeare 1564-1616 "Troilus and Cressida" 1601-1602

I was bogged down for awhile recently writing a specific chapter segment of "Shadow of the Lion". I'm dealing with some intricate political stuff that is important as the final part of the novel hinges on these events. So I've had to read over a lot of research notes, and pay attention to the way other historical fiction authers present their character's dialogues in order to peg the exact way these men would speak when addressing Assemblies or friends. I always start a new scene by making lots of notes, and as this process unfolds, bits of dialogue come to me and paragraphs of action, setting details, descriptions etc. Then I let it gel for a few days, settle my mind, try to listen to their voices in my head. Finally, I go to work writing the scene.

The first time I wrote this new segment it was written too flat. There wasn't enough action and definitely not enough dialogue. So I've been struggling a bit with it, reviewing research and making further notes. Finally, yesterday, it all came to me and I wrote for several hours straight, seven pages in all, and when I went back later to do my edits, I was pleased to find that there was little editing to do. Here's a sample of the kind of dialogue I was writing.

The setting is an Assembly in which the Macedonian Regent, Polyperchon, is conducting a 'trial' for the military governor of Athens, Phokion, who is accused of treason. Polyperchon's rival, the second in command, Kassandros, is plotting to overturn Polyperchon and seize the Regency and control of the Greek city states. Phokion has ignored a royal edict sent to Athens by Polyperchon, allowed Nikanor the garrison commander to escape when the Athenians wanted to arrest him, and thus put himself in jeopardy, accused by his own citizens of siding with Kassandros and supporting the aristocrats who have fared well under the oligarchies imposed by the old regent Antipater. Here is a scene from the 'trial'.

The atmosphere in the Hall was hushed and solemn. The audience pressed forward eagerly, waiting for him to address them. He glanced across at Phokion who sat with his supporters in front of the dais flanked by Deinarchos and Solon. Neither of the men were visibly armed but he did not doubt that beneath their cloaks were hidden daggers. They claimed to have come ‘out of regard’ for Phokion, but undoubtedly they had been sent by Kassandros to protect him.
When questioned earlier, Deinarchos had apologized for their delay in arriving, saying he had fallen ill. Polyperchon felt certain this was a ploy to delay the Assembly. Was Kassandros sailing into Athens on this very day? He’d had no word from his son Alexandros and had to rely solely on what the delegations told him.

His feelings of unease overcame him and before anything else transpired, he ordered both men forward.
“What is your purpose here?” he commanded.

Solon, a thin man with a narrow face and thick brows that shaded his small dark eyes,
shuffled nervously. “In truth, Sir, I have come as a friend of Phokion.”
“And you?” Polyperchon scowled down at Deinarchos, a short, stout man who seemed dwarf-like beside his own height and girth.
“I too, Sir,” Deinarchos stammered. His ruddy face flushed deep crimson. “We are here to speak on Phokion‘s behalf, my Lord.”

Polyperchon asserted his disapproval of them fiercely. “You two men have been Antipater’s agents and thus owe allegiance to his son. If in truth you are lying, and have come here as spies for Kassandros, I will have you put to death as traitors!” He turned to his guards. “Take these men out and torture the truth out of them. And if they prove, as I believe is so, to be Kassandros‘ men , put them to the sword!”

There was a gasp of disbelief from the members of Phokion’s party and from Phokion himself came a cry of protest. The two men stood in frozen silence as the guards came forward to seize them. Solon’s face had gone white. Deinarchos glanced nervously around at Phokion
“They have come in good faith and friendship,” cried Phokion. “You are wrong to accuse them. They are no more traitors than I am!”

Until then he had remained aloof and silent but now, summonsed by Polyperchon to speak in his own defence, he drew himself up to his full height and stepped up to the dais like a general ready to address his troops. Instead, he was greeted by boos and cat-calls.

“Macedonians, fellow Greeks, “ he shouted. His crisp, soldier’s voice cut through those of the dissenters. “These men are loyal friends of mine. They did not coerce me to support Kassandros, but came here in good faith to show their trust in me. I appeal for justice. I need no representative to plea for my own cause. The good have no need of an advocate! These charges that are raised against me are false. I was relieved of my command by the same foreigners and rabble rousers that you allowed to return to Athens. This, Polyperchon, is one reason why I hesitated to obey the decree. I knew it would
irreparably divide the city. Because you ordered the exiles to return to claim their land, Athens would, as it is now, be plunged into civil strife. I have, as you know, been a friend of Macedon. Have I not allowed the garrison to remain at Munychia?”

His strong voice carried to the rafters. There were murmurs of admiration from his supporters which were soon overruled by jeers from the opposing democrats.
Polyperchon shouted a call to order and silenced them. He turned to the old general and gave him an accusatory stare. “You betrayed your citizens by collaborating with Nikanor, allowing him to escape.”

“I counted Nikanor as trustworthy, taking into account his family association with Aristotle,” Phokion retorted. “I had no reason to suspect him of ill-intentions. In any case, I prefer to suffer wrong rather than to inflict it. I did not arrest him because I was afraid of plunging the city into war. I am a man of good faith, sir, and known to deal fairly and I had hoped Nikanor would respect this and do no harm to the Athenians.”

Loud voices broke out among the opposition until Polyperchon’s booming voice reprimanded them. There was a complete silence as he spoke.
“You have endangered your country’s safety by doing so, Phokion, and this violates an important and sacred obligation: that is your duty toward your fellow citizens. It is not a good enough defence that, when Nikanor had betrayed you, you went to my son Alexandros to seek his help. By then Nikanor, who was clearly under Kassandros’ command, had already taken control of Pireaus so that Kassandros might sail in unhindered with his warships. You have thus failed as military commander and chief magistrate of Athens, Sir, and your acts are clearly treasonous against me, the Regent, and my country, Macedon.”

“When I learned that Nikanor had betrayed my trust I was willing to lead out the Athenians...” argued Phokion.
“Your act was too late, Phokion,” Polyperchon shot back. “You ignored the warnings of your fellow citizens and because of this you have put Athens in great peril.”
Then Agonidis, a popular orator Phokion had once saved from exile, stood to speak. He accused Phokion of hoodwinking the Athenians by withholding news at the
time of Antipater’s death; conniving to abort an attempt to seize the Macedonian garrison, and accusing him of ignoring the call to arms by the citizens.

Phokion attempted to shout him down,. He reminded Agonidis how he had negotiated a peace policy between Nikanor and the Macedonians, thus saving the city from an invasion that could have destroyed Athens as Thebes had been destroyed.
An uproar of angry Athenians shouted accusations and derisions at him, their voices raised in condemnation. Phokion stood amid the clamour, stolid as a marble pillar, the barrage of insults and accusations brushing off him like dry leaves. He tried to speak again but Polyperchon interrupted him, so he struck his staff on the floor, clamped his mouth shut, and remained silent.

* * *
"Conversation the art of never appearing a bore,
of knowing how to say everything interestingly,
to entraing with no matter what, to be charming with nothing at all."
Guy de Maupassant 1850-1893 Sur l/Eau (On the Water) 1888
"What is the use of a book," thought Alice "without pictures or conversation?"
Lewis Carroll 1832-1898 "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" 1865 ch 1


Sam said...

I agree that conversation or dialogue is an excellent way of conveying lots of information without resorting to 'info-dumping' in stories.
And wooden dialogue is awful, lol!
This is quite an interesting scene!

Debra Young said...

Wynn, I read every word of that scene and now I need the rest of the book! :)

Your post underscores a struggle I've encountered while writing A Lamentation of Swans. Dialogue is not difficult for me, but "casting" it on the page makes me fret because with fantasy you've got to decide on the syntax and diction of the language of your imaginary people and their imaginary culture. Do you make them sound like Victorians? Or the graceful speech of the Georgian era? Or like ancient Greeks or Egyptians? Would the diction of fuedal Japan suit or China? Or the Latinate rhythms of the Renaissance?

Right now I've gone with plain flat speech, which sounds too modern to my ear. I hope somewhere along the way I get the proper speech for the Raevani.

Thanks for the perceptive post. d:)

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for your positive remarks regarding this blog subject and the contents. Deb, I am using specific levels of diction in "Shadow", trying to avoid 'modernism' but also to avoid too much archaic stuff that would make it stiff, and not like 'real' people talking. This has been one of the tricky parts of this writing project, but mostly I think I've nailed it!