Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Interview with M

Write Like Fleming Series #5

Source

"You've got to kill this sniper. And you've got to kill him before he gets 272. That's all." — M, in The Living Daylights


What did he just say? And why the hell did he just say that? And why is he being so cold and final about it, not even giving me a chance to argue, to interject, to find out more about this "sniper" and this 272. And what's with the "That's all"? Is he upset? Does he have it in for me? What does it all MEAN??!

Okay. That was a bit of an exaggeration.

The point is, there are a TON of questions that could be going through your POV character's mind when having a conversation. They could be thinking about what the other person's saying, they could be thinking about the person, they could be thinking about themselves, they could be thinking about nachos! Often, these questions are the same thing the reader is thinking. The answers, and the details, are often just what they need to make sense of it all as well.

So much meaning can underlie a single line of dialogue. And it's up to the POV character (and you! The writer!) to either expand on that line, or not.

Let's call this, the dialogue within dialogue.

Now of course, dialogue within dialogue shouldn't be used ALL the time. Not every spoken word needs to be analyzed, and not every quip means something. It would be annoying, for one, and it can definitely slow down the pace of a conversation, and a scene, when used too often. But there are certain times when it's appropriate, and certain times when it just works.

Dialogue within dialogue can help:
  • Tell us how something that's said makes the POV character feel. How do they react?
  • Expand on what was said (or not said). What's between the lines? What does it mean?
  • Help us focus on or remember something significant. What does the POV character notice?

In this, entry number 005 in the Write Like Fleming Series, in which I delve into the writing style of one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming, we'll see how Fleming uses dialogue within dialogue to add richness and tension to one of the most famous and prevalent scenes in the Bond series.

The interview with M.

It's in every book, and almost every movie. Unlike in the movies, though, where the "interviews" tend to be fairly quick, in the books, they are chapter-long affairs, where Bond anticipates, analyzes, and reflects on the mission to come — all during the briefing itself. They're brilliant examples of dialogue within dialogue, and the example below is the most brilliant of them all.


Source

In "The Living Daylights", Bond encounters an M who is cold and short — more so than usual. He is about to give Bond a dirty assignment — a killing assignment, a murder — and he knows it.

He is sending Bond to Germany, to the no man's land that separates East and West Berlin, in order to protect a defector, agent 272, from being killed by a KGB sniper called "Trigger".


But to protect 272, he'll have to kill this sniper, this "Trigger".

Here's the scene clean, without dialogue within dialogue. Tight and quick, but do you get the full meaning of what's actually happening, between the lines?

"Where do I come in, sir?" 
"Where do you come in, 007?" M. looked coldly across the desk. "You know where you come in. You've got to kill this sniper. And you've got to kill him before he gets 272. That's all. Is that understood?" The clear blue eyes remained cold as ice. 
[Bond] got to his feet. "That's all right, sir. I suppose the Chief of Staff has got all the gen. I'd better go and put in some practice. It wouldn't do to miss." He walked to the door. 
M. said quietly, "Sorry to have to hand this to you. Nasty job. But it's got to be done well." 
"I'll do my best, sir." James Bond walked out and closed the door behind him.

Now here's the scene with dialogue within dialogue, with Bond's thoughts mixed in. It's longer, and slower, but the impact of it, and the tension within the conversation, is astounding. Watch how Bond takes the news, dissects it, and comes to terms with his mission, with M, and with himself:

"Where do I come in, sir?" But James Bond had guessed the answer, guessed why M. was showing his dislike of the whole business. This was going to be dirty work, and Bond, because he belonged to the Double-O Section, had been chosen for it. Perversely, Bond wanted to force M. to put it in black and white. This was going to be bad news, dirty news, and he didn't want to hear it from one of the section officers, or even from the Chief of Staff. This was to be murder. All right. Let M. bloody well say so. 
"Where do you come in, 007?" M. looked coldly across the desk. "You know where you come in. You've got to kill this sniper. And you've got to kill him before he gets 272. That's all. Is that understood?" The clear blue eyes remained cold as ice. But Bond knew that they remained so only with an effort of will. M. didn't like sending any man to a killing. But, when it had to be done, he always put on this fierce, cold act of command. Bond knew why. It was to take some of the pressure, some of the guilt, off the killer's shoulders. 
So now Bond, who knew these things, decided to make it easy and quick for M. He got to his feet. "That's all right, sir. I suppose the Chief of Staff has got all the gen. I'd better go and put in some practice. It wouldn't do to miss." He walked to the door. 
M. said quietly, "Sorry to have to hand this to you. Nasty job. But it's got to be done well." 
"I'll do my best, sir." James Bond walked out and closed the door behind him. He didn't like the job, but on the whole he'd rather have it himself than have the responsibility of ordering someone else to go and do it.

So? Is it a better scene? Yay or nay?

Stay tuned for the next post in the series, where we'll explore the moment when Bond finally comes face to face (or sniperscope to sniperscope!) with "Trigger", and Fleming's talent for writing tight, tense action scenes.


The Write Like Fleming Series:
#1 - Reflections in a Double Bourbon
#2 - From a View to a Kill
#3 - Tension, Mr. Bond!
#4 - Seascape with Figures
#5 - Interview with M