Sunday, February 23, 2014

Observing & Writing Dialog With Ryan Parmenter

Ryan Parmenter

This week I’m very pleased to introduce you to Ryan Parmenter.

Ryan Parmenter published his debut novel, Hyperbole as an eBook in 2012. The following year, the author-narrated audiobook and the trade paperback formats were released. A creative jack-of-all-trades, Parmenter created the artwork for the cover of Hyperbole and also recorded an album of 7 songs based upon song titles mentioned throughout the book.
Parmenter graduated from the University of Michigan and later graduated from The Second City Conservatory as an improvisational performer along with the woman who would become his wife.
Parmenter lives in Michigan with his wife and a bunch of pets.

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

I write because I like stories, and I like the process of constructing stories. Character is the most important aspect of the fiction I write. The plot evolves based upon what the characters want and the challenges they need to face. The plot ought to service the characters, to reveal more about them, show different aspects of them, and to highlight complexity. I try to write three-dimensional characters. Even when a character is there primarily for comic relief—like Ollie or Todd Crabs in Hyperbole—I still feel like they have to be rounded. They have to have backstories and desires, and they have to have moments where they are not funny and can be taken seriously. Dialog is one of the primary devices for revealing the idiosyncrasies and perspectives of my characters. The words that the characters speak are always their words. Dialog can reveal a dialect. It can hint at a level of education or status. And for a writer of comedy, character dialog in reaction to events or to other characters can be the best opportunity for humor and irony.

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

I love people watching, and while I am generally not an intentional eavesdropper, if I’m in a public place and someone is making an ass or him- or herself, I’m all ears. Meltdowns are hilarious. I have to assume that the appeal of watching people have meltdowns is the primary reason for the popularity of “reality” TV. But histrionics aside, I do pay attention to speech patterns and cadences and diction. Friends, family, coworkers, service providers, news anchors: There are so many opportunities to capture gems. And I don’t necessarily mean writing down verbatim quotes, but I am constantly noting manners of expression. The ways in which people misuse words. Or the way that some people make statements that always seem to end as questions? And in modern America, I’d bet that if you wrote out the real-world dialog you hear on a daily basis, a vast majority of it would be fragments. We’re too lazy to speak in complete sentences. And we tend to assume that listeners will be able to fill in the words or concepts that we omit.

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?

Tone is a big one. Variances in tone can be conveyed by descriptions of pitch and body language. In terms of dialog, tone is can be conveyed by diction, sentence length, whether characters complete their thoughts or interrupt themselves. Slang is a good way to make it immediately casual. Or introduce fancy words to show your characters trying to be formal or pretentious. If a character slurs, mumbles, or mispronounces, that can enhance the characterization or subtext. Of course, volume can convey a lot about characters. Quiet, thoughtful dialog is sweet, while quiet, harsh dialog can be sinister. While I enjoy writing descriptions, in many cases, the more I can convey simply through dialog, the better.

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

I love dialog because I love getting into my characters’ heads. Dialog is the way you show characters expressing themselves, and much like in the real world, some are much more eloquent than others. My goal when writing dialog is for the reader to be able to determine who is speaking without explicitly noting, “said Harland” or “said Rena.” Ideally, the voices will be unique enough in word choice or speech pattern, even without considering the ideas being expressed. Sometimes the biggest challenge can be deciding in a particular scene or moment whether a character should say anything, or whether to let their actions speak for them.

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

I’ve learned to deconstruct being a dick! Seriously, though, I have spent a great deal of time figuring out how to write characters I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time with if they were real. For instance, I might ask myself, “What does it sound like when someone is condescending?” They’re curt, they use harsh words, and sometimes they spell out the obvious because they assume everyone else is stupid. I’ve learned from my characters to avoid saying certain things. For instance, I will probably never again utter the phrase, “Yeah, right” without it being a joke. Some people, and some characters, have learned the art of word economy, and they can express themselves efficiently. Others will go on and on and on and won’t seem sure about when they should stop talking, and they’re never quite sure if their point has been made clearly enough, and five more minutes of nonsense …

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

Harland, the narrator of “Hyperbole,” has such an intense inner monologue that he doesn’t feel the need to say much out loud. Despite the occasional soliloquy, he tends to be concise in dialog and to fall back on asides and one-liners wherever possible. But it’s really a defense mechanism, an extension of insecurity. Meanwhile, a character like Todd Crabs is a bit more of a caricature, speaking his own shorthand, assigning nicknames (“Brub,” “Chooch,” “Plumps”), but it’s still an extension of him and how he prefers to express himself. Rena is not one to take any b.s., and her dialog reflects it. She gets to the point. Nestor is somewhat similar. He has a sense of humor, but he portrays a pragmatism and level-headedness that the others don’t. And Ollie--bless his soul--is a space cadet, and his dialog is always full of comic/tragic naiveté. Poor Ollie gets to speak most of the malapropisms, like Paulie Walnuts from “The Sopranos.”

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

As the characters are frequently inebriated and selfish, there is a lot of cross-talk, meandering, and poor communication. The core group of friends generally means well toward one another, but none of them have well-developed filters or senses of politeness. There’s one point where Harland is with the others and he is preoccupied thinking about plot twists in video games, and by the time he mentions his favorite example to the group, they’ve moved on to discussing something entirely different. It’s one of many instances where you realize Harland may not be the most reliable narrator. Poor communication is one of the primary plot devices.

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

I overheard someone in the office where I work say, “We have to spend more time being efficient.” I’m a big fan of contradictions and irony. I have a weird sense of humor.

That one is so good, it sounds like it belongs on a t-shirt!

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?

Here’s a brief exchange between Harland and his romantic partner, Rena:

Rena looks at me, waiting. I let her wait. Finally, she says, “Harland.”
“Yeah, I heard you.”
“Do you agree?” She’s becoming my mother again, stern without anything to back it up.
“Yeah, sure, whatever.”
“Harland,” she says, “I don’t want you dying for no reason.”
“Dying for a cause is overrated,” I say. “I’d rather die for nothing.”

This is an excerpt from the novel Hyperbole by Ryan Parmenter, available from Amazon as an eBook, paperback, and an unabridged audiobook narrated by the author:

I like this simple exchange because it summarizes the tension in their relationship. Harland is being intentionally childish and obstinate. He’s also portraying nihilistic tendencies, whether or not he actually means what he’s saying. You see Rena, is impatient but wanting real input from her partner. I think it’s a cool moment, and it ends with one of Harland’s signature non-sequiturs.

Is there anything else about observing and writing dialog that you’d like to add?

I like to keep an open ear and take notes. I don’t like to use real-world dialogue in fiction, but I have no problem with basing dialogue patterns or character traits on real-world observation. Also, I try to keep exposition through dialog to a minimum. If it’s a big reveal and you can do it through a line or two, I think that works. But I don’t like reading paragraphs of characters divulging plot details to one another, so I try to avoid that in my own fiction. And most importantly, I try to let the dialog be one of the many methods by which flawed characters can reveal even more of their shortcomings and the stuff that makes them (fake) human.
Thanks so much for the interview, Marcy!

It’s been my pleasure, Ryan. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and some great examples of pithy dialog.

Readers, you can find Ryan Parmenter and his work in the following locations:
“Hyperbole” eBook:

“Hyperbole” Paperback:

“Hyperbole” Audiobook:

Amazon Author Page:

“Hyperbole” Book Trailer:

“Hyperbole” on Facebook:

“Hyperbole” on Google+:

“Hyperbole” on Goodreads:

Ryan Parmenter on Twitter: