Sunday, February 9, 2014

Observing & Writing Dialog With L. Darby Gibbs

L. Darby Gibbs

Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to my writing pal L. Darby Gibbs (a.k.a. Elldee). We were introduced on Twitter in 2012 by @Belinda_Pollard and swiftly realized that we are meant to be friends, to share dog stories and to exchange manuscripts.

L. Darby Gibbs is a lady writer, dedicated teacher, proud mother, emotional support for two Labrador ladies, and partner to the nicest man in the world (been a founding member of the happily married group of southern California for more than 30 years); of course, not necessarily in that order or any order on any particular day.  She is an Indie author of two science fiction novels, one anthology of short stories, and one non-fiction writer's reference book, working on book five and convincing several others to wait their turn.  Don't struggle with deciding if you should call her L. or Darby.  Elldee works just fine.

First, please tell us a bit about what you write and why dialog is important in your work.

I write soft science fiction which means my focus is on the characters and their interactions with each other, so dialogue is essential.  I find that genuine dialogue reveals character, personal perception, and action to the reader in ways that description alone cannot.  Often my characters are facing situations that challenge their views of themselves.  Well-written dialogue helps reveal that internal struggle.

Listening is an integral piece of "people watching". Do you "people listen" automatically, or do you make a deliberate effort?

I am deliberate in my listening, but it is an impersonal observation. I am cataloging the tone, the word choice, the body language that goes with the process of communication, storing up these glimpses into human nature like a chipmunk with loaded cheek pouches.  I am not tasting them; I'm harvesting for later use.

Cheek pouches for writers. I like this idea!

Humans exchange a lot of information paraverbally, that is, through intonation, pacing/rhythm, volume, and enunciation. What paraverbal cues are you most sensitive or tuned into as an author, an observer, and a participant?

I certainly am aware of paraverbal cues when I am communicating with others as a writer or in daily communication.  As a teacher, I have to be aware of this aspect of communication.   Different students call for different modes of interaction with me, so my intonation, volume and rhythm will change to enhance that interaction according to each child's personality.  One child not paying attention may take correction with just me drawling out his or her name, no further wording needed, while another student requires me to speak in a rhythmic cadence slowly raising the volume as I approach him or her.  But in writing, though I do notice authors using stuttering, the pause, emphasis though italics, ellipses for incomplete thought, and dashes for interruption in their works, I think these should be used sparingly.  Well drawn characters carry their speaking style through word choice, actions, demonstrated personality, etc.

Do you enjoy writing dialog? Is there anything about writing dialog that you find challenging?

I do love to write dialogue – it plays out not just in my head but bits and pieces flit out my mouth in spurts and runs as I imagine the motivations behind the words and how they are affected and perceived by the receiver.  I especially look for opportunities to misunderstand a statement. We all do it, hearing the first words said and drawing conclusions before we hear what follows – sometimes deliberately looking for opportunity to "misread" the intent.  When characters do this, whole new avenues of understanding and misunderstanding open up. The deliberate fight begins because the character is angry and wants to challenge someone, anyone, to get out the internal tension at any cost.  The individual regrets it later, but in the moment it reveals so much about relationships and the true struggle within.  Will the receiving character be able to see what is behind the attack or will they be pulled in, their own reasoning compromised? 
The most challenging part of dialogue I find is when the characters run off on a point I had not planned for.  But such moments are also a delightful proof for how amazing the human brain is. I had my goal – my character has his agenda too – in the end the two intentions miraculously come together.  Example from Next Time We Meet: Mick and Emily need to get ready to time hop to 2282.  Mick isn't crazy about the costumes they need to wear to fit in.  Their time in the costuming room turned into a romp that really fleshed out not just the costumes themselves and what the costuming room provided but more about the characters.  We (Mick, Emily and I) had quite the giggle over the whole experience.

What have you learned about yourself and your relationships by observing real life & fictional dialog?

When I was a very young writer, I often resorted to basing my characters on actors in movies I had seen.  I had little personal experience, observation and analysis to go on.  But as I have aged, I find my characters are often amalgams of people I know or have had the opportunity to observe at length. I recently finished the redraft of Next Time We Meet, book 3 in my Students of Jump series.  I was reviewing interaction between the main characters Emily and Mick and realized a lot of my father went into Mick.  Both men ride the edge of amusement, no matter how torturous an event, and they view themselves as men who are not capable of facing difficult situations, yet when such events take place, they do not hide or pass blame – they stride forward through the bullets then class themselves as cowards because they felt fear.  Writing Mick gave me insight into my father and his perception of his time in the Navy in WWII.

Mick is one of my favorite characters in your books. I think I’d like your dad very much.

Do you have any characters with catchphrases or verbal habits? What are they? How do these personal quirks add depth to your characters?

Jove (In Times Passed) is the observer type and makes people uncomfortable because he watches them so closely and speaks in undercurrents – if he is right about a deception, the person he is speaking with feels guilty because they understand what he is intimating which they wouldn't if they were innocent.  Double meaning is his middle name.  Ondine  (In Times Passed) is flighty and excitable.  She tends to jump (both physically and mentally) to the conclusion of a conversation, leaving her friends to finish the back and forth process in their minds to catch up to where she has leaped.  She leaves out all the introductory material.

Do your characters ever interrupt, cross-talk or change the subject? Do you use communication interference in your dialog? Why/Why not?

In the book I am currently drafting (Testing Time), Sara and her friend Stilt naturally fall into triple-decker conversations discussing three topics at once. They ask and answer questions, remark on events around them, and discuss issues that annoy them in rapid succession before the other person responds in kind.  The number of conversations they carry on at once has a direct connection to how well they are getting along.
In In Times Passed, Brent meets his girlfriend's brother Mick and finds himself deliberately goaded.  Mick keeps calling him "Pete" and asking him questions about things he knows nothing about while Miranda repeatedly pinches him every time he tries to politely back out of the conversation.  He doesn't want to offend the brother, nor does he want to get angry with his girlfriend in front of the brother.  Good intensions must go awry.  The pinches interfere with his efforts to manage this meeting, and he has to call them both out on their efforts to maneuver him into meeting their expectations or failing them.  Poor guy, he gets a little sore at the two of them.

Please share with us a dialog gem that you've recently overheard or participated in. What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

Grocery stores make me uncomfortable because I feel sympathy for the cashier.  I am certain they have been given a mandate to talk to each and every customer.  The cashier is usually a woman, and she speaks with each customer as they load the conveyer up with their selections and prepare to pay.    I always feel sorry for them and try to participate in these false friendly dialogues.  "I've never seen this sauce before.  What do you put it on?"  "Oh, it is wonderful with salad, bits of crab, sunflower seeds, shredded broccoli, and such."  "I have to try that.  Was it in produce or in the dressing aisle?"  The whole time we're talking, she's running the food through the price grabber, and I am standing and watching my husband fill the cart as the food is bagged.  I'll nod goodbye and forget her face and she mine in about ten seconds.  We were real people talking.  I was participating in the conversation and viewed her as another human being trying to pay the bills and not be bored by her job.  I was with her in the conversation, but I wasn't engaged.   If someone had been watching, what would they have seen?  One woman running a register in a swift, organized manner and another shifting attention to and from the cashier in case she speaks again and back to her husband because movement draws our attention, and she can't offend him by staring because he is someone she knows, whereas if she looks ahead at the next customer, he might look up and think he has his hair looking like Einstein's because he can't stop running his hands through it.  Eye contact with the cashier is impossible as she is too busy looking at jars of green beans, searching for fruit tags through plastic and putting heavy items in with things that won't get squished by them.  So all that is left is the husband swinging bags into the cart in his usual packing behavior, shifting this one with that as each bag calls for particular placement: heavies on the bottom, light or soft on the top.  And the cashier moves on to the next mandated conversation.

Please share with us a dialog gem from your own writing. (If published, please share the title & link to purchase site.) What do you think makes this dialog interesting?
In Times Passed, Book 1 of Students of Jump

Miranda turned away, retrieving her box of supplies from the path where Brent had laid it down.  Then she walked along the path until she came to a small area free of trees, well-padded with layers of brown leaves from the previous fall.  She sat down and watched as Brent came and joined her.  Once he was seated, she looked down and said, “Have you ever experienced a time when you've met someone and know immediately that they are a best friend yet to become or a mentor, teacher or a girlfriend, and you are certain that if the moment continues it will happen.”
Brent leaned close to hear her soft voice.  He could not see her eyes, hidden as they were by her hair, her head facing down as though the hands lying limp in her lap were all she could find the strength to look at.  Silence was all he could give her.
She continued, “You've only just met and spoken for a few moments, but you know this.”  Her voice a whisper, she said, “But maybe the person moves away or has to leave early or you take another job, and you know what you lost even though it never came to be?  You can feel it like a string forever tying you to that moment, that person who somehow will always flow in the same mental stream, take the same emotional parallel course, that if you were to meet them again the connection would remain unbroken, but because it never got past that moment of existence, never developed past the sudden inspiring thought, you always feel it, a pain of loss you cannot explain.”
For a moment she looked up at him, and they were facing each other, straining to hear, straining to speak every precise word.  He expected to see tear-filled eyes, but hers were clear, deeply compelling but not sorrowful as he anticipated.  She was explaining something important.  He heard her say, “I have had those moments.  Years separate them.  Those kinds of connections are so rare, the moment so intoxicating and sure, yet every time, I have wondered if the other person felt it, too.  I wanted to ask them but feared such questions would destroy that connection, as if it could only grow if given a free hand, not questioned or begged into existence.  The conception recognized, but any amount of encouragement would drive it away.”  She sighed and looked back at her hands.  “I never know what the correct move is, just that I must make a move.” She stood up, smiled and headed down the path to her brother's home.
Brent stayed sitting in the leaves, hearing over and over her words, knowing he had to leave in a week.

What I like most about this dialogue is that only one person is speaking, but two people are fully involved with what is being said.  The silence provided by Brent makes it clear he cannot, at least for the moment, admit he knows what she is talking about.  And what she does not say is just as clear.  They are drawn together, but he is unable to acknowledge it, and she does not want to scare him away, yet she also does not want him to leave not knowing how she feels.  And she knows he is going to leave even though he hasn't said so yet.

 L. Darby Gibbs is the author of Students of Jump: In Times Passed, No-Time Like the Present, Gardens in the Cracks & Other Stories, and The Little Handbook of Narrative Frameworks.
Twitter: @LDarbyGibbs
Google+:  +L. Darby

If you’re an author and are interested in participating in this blog series, please contact me at to discuss scheduling (I have openings in April) and other details.

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