I think it goes without saying that I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about dialogue in the future, which makes this sentence redundant, doesn’t it?
I went to see “Super 8” this weekend with my sister-in-law. It’s kind of a violent and much scarier version of “E.T.” And yes, I am referencing another movie. I haven’t seen so many movies in such a short time in ages. If you are keeping track, a lot of movies in a short time equals two. There was one scene in this movie that was perfection in terms of authentic dialogue. I really wish I could show you a clip… or give you a transcript, but my web scouring skills have come up with nothing.
So, if you haven’t seen this movie, you are stuck with my efforts to describe it to you. It is a scene where this group of kids – teenagers, I suppose – are sitting around a diner table. There are six of them and fundamentally they are both reliving a traumatic experience and filling in their newest clan addition, a pretty female classmate, with tales of their moviemaking experiences. The thing that makes it so beautiful is that the thread of the conversation — which doesn’t ever stop — is littered with side remarks from the characters – mostly digs on each other – but they do not take away from the primary conversation.
What I really wanted to do here is show an example of how to pull off such a great group dynamic in print, because my husband pointed out that in film, of course, it is easy to do a wide angle shot of characters or even do rapid shots of individual characters as they speak. Plus, we can hear their voices overlap each other and interrupt and so forth. And he asked me, how do you do it? How do you pull this off in print?
And this is where I desperately wanted a better memory so that I could give some great example from a well-established, talented writer. But seriously, I have to have read (or watched) something a billion times to remember any quotes at all. So unless it was going to come from Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, “Friends”, “Star Trek TNG”, or “Bones”, it wasn’t gonna happen. And those last three titles are TV shows, so that wouldn’t have worked, anyway. And ‘lo and behold, the MEMORY CAME THROUGH! And it is indeed an example from Harry Potter… specifically, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
My answer to the question was initially that a rapid-fire group dynamic conversation can be shown through movement of the characters. This motion generates the action and sense of energy in the conversation. But punctuation can do this, too – especially the use of dashes to indicate interruptions and the ellipsis to show multiple conversations taking place.
So, here we have Harry eating breakfast at “The Burrow”, which is simply the name of the home of the family he is visiting (btw, I really wish we would resurrect this idea of naming our homes… “Green Gables”, “Ingleside”, “Tara”, and lord help me, “The Hermitage”… whatever happened to this tradition?). The Burrow is the home of a large family and so therefore, breakfast is an animated affair. What do you think… is Rowling successful in generating an image of activity and spirited conversation within the group?
Ron rolled his eyes and muttered to Harry and Hermione, “He’s been trying to get us to ask what that event is ever since he started work. Probably an exhibition of thick-bottomed cauldrons.”
In the middle of the table, Mrs. Weasley was arguing with Bill about his earring, which seemed to be a recent acquisition.
“…with a horrible great fang on it. Really, Bill, what do they say at the bank?”
“Mum, no one at the bank gives a damn how I dress as long as I bring home plenty of treasure,” said Bill patiently.
“”And your hair’s getting silly, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley, fingering her wand lovingly, “I wish you’d let me give it a trim…”
“I like it,” said Ginny, who was sitting beside Bill. “You’re so old-fashioned, Mum. Anyway, it’s nowhere near as long as Professor Dumbledore’s…”
Next to Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, and Charlie were all talking spiritedly about the World Cup.
“It’s got to be Ireland,” said Charlie thickly, though a mouthful of potato. “They flattened Peru in the semifinals.”
“Bulagaria has got Viktor Krum, though,” said Fred.
“Krum’s one decent player, Ireland has got seven,” said Charlie shortly. “I wish England had got through. That was embarrassing that was.”
“What happened?” said Harry eagerly…
In the scene above, Rowling does not use movement of the characters, but does move us through different parts of the table and takes advantage of punctuation to indicate conversations already in progress.
(I have a scene from my work-in-progress novel that attempts this group dynamic. If you are interested, check it out here.)
But, what do you think? Was Rowling successful? Or does this example fall short of the mark? How do you accomplish an active group conversation dynamic in print?