Greetings, Campers, this month, we’re going to take a brief look at writing dialogue. There are entire books on this one subject and I can’t possibly do it justice. But as we’re zeroing in on writing scenes, we really can’t leave dialogue out entirely.
Syd Field, in The Screen-Writer’s Workbook, lists these purposes for dialogue:
1. To move the story forward
2. To communicates facts and information
3. To reveal character
4. To establish relationships between characters
5. To comment on the action
6. To tie scenes together
Does dialogue do all these things at once? Only if you’re a master at it, I suppose. However, let’s face it, every word we put on the page should do many of these things at once. Our dialogue must, as well. So, here are a few of my rules of great dialogue.
REAL OR MEMOREX? Great dialogue is only the illusion of the real thing. If you transcribe real conversation, you’ll lose your audience to boredom. Good dialogue is real dialogue amped up. It only leaves in the awkward silences and fumbling sentences on purpose, to crank up the emotion. Remember, it’s all about emotion.
CHARACTER. Good dialogue reveals character. It does this with what the characters themselves say and with what others say about them. It does it with silence and pauses and sentences that aren’t finished. It does it with body language, tone, and facial expression. Often, we learn far more about a character by what is left out of a conversation. And sometimes, characters can chat about the mundane while, beneath the surface, conflict churns.
JUDICIOUS EXPOSITION. Exposition within dialogue can be tricky. If we throw too much information and explanation into conversation, our dialogue comes out sounding hokey and completely unreal. Be very careful not to force your dialogue to give your reader information. Author Greg Garrett gives us this “tremendously bad example of exposition masquerading as a dramatic exchange.”
"I've been so lonely since my husband Ted died in 1991 of cancer. We had been happily married since 1965, when we met while I was working in the Kresge department store on Canal Street in New Orleans."
"Of course, you poor dear. Thank goodness your son Frank immediately left his job in Pittsburgh as a computer programmer to move back into your house in the Garden District of New Orleans so that he could help you with your clinical depression. Of course, now you are caring for Frank because his wife deserted him and took the kids back to Pennsylvania after the doctor discovered in a routine test that he was HIV positive."
On the other hand, watch how the screenwriter of the movie Witness weaves exposition into his scene in a very natural way. Not only does he teach the “reader” here, the exposition does double duty later when Rachel watches to see if Book will act the same way.
RACHEL: I should tell you these do not have buttons. (shows him) See? Hooks and eyes.
BOOK: Something wrong with buttons?
RACHEL: Buttons are hochmut.
RACHEL: Vain. Proud. Such a person is hochmutsnarr. He is not plain.
BOOK: (nodding) Anything against zippers?
RACHEL: (almost blushing) You make fun of me. Like the tourists. Driving by all the time. Some even come into the yard. Very rude. They seem to think we are quaint.
BOOK: Quaint? Can't imagine why. (She smiles.) Where's the nearest telephone?
RACHEL: Telephone? The Gunthers across the valley. They're Mennonite. They have cars and refrigerators and telephones in the houses even.
Sigh. I love that movie.
WHO’S TALKING. Make sure your dialogue sounds like the character. A history professor doesn’t speak the same as a football coach. If he does, it reveals a lot about the history professor, doesn’t it? Occasionally, it’s good to mix things up and have a CLICHED character speak in a NON-CLICHED way.
Speaking of cliches, dialogue is really the only place we can truly get away with using cliches. Because people speak in cliches all the time, our characters can, too. But I would encourage you to use this tool on purpose, not just because you can.
A word about accents. Be very careful with writing accents. Remember, a little goes a long way. It may be better all around to not actually write the accent but to simply mention it from another character’s point of view. In my first novel, Black Ice, my hero was a goalie from Montreal. Here, he meets the heroine.
“Nice to meet you Miss MacMaster,” he said with a soft French Canadian accent. “Are you not also on the training staff for the team?”
I listened to Patrick Roy (remember him?) at length to discover that he rarely used contractions, so neither did A.J. The real concession I made to his accent throughout the book was occasional non-English syntax.
“I have done much things to hurt her.”
“She writes books for childrens.”
If you let them, your characters will write their own dialogue. This can only happen, though, when you know your characters well and if you don’t force them to say what you want them to say. Characters REACT in dialogue - to their own words and to the words, tones, and body language of others. Let the action/reaction model into your dialogue and your dialogue will come to life.
I have a couple of characters that have a real problem being in the same room with each other. If I put them together, they invariably end up taking pot shots at each other. They totally REACT to each other. Sometimes, they react well, (one brief moment in this scene, which takes place on the dance floor of the local bar, right after a wake) but mostly they just fuel each other, in more ways than one.
He knew the answer but it might be entertaining to hear her version.
“I haven’t hit the bottom yet.”
“You need a business partner, an infusion of capital.”
Now she looked up at him, eyebrows drawn together a wry smile on her face.
“Oh, yeah, that’s just what I need.”
“I’m serious, Red.”
“Don’t get your checkbook out, Cruz. I’m not interested in having another partner, especially one like you. I may be a slow learner but I do get it eventually.”
“Ooh, the Golden Boy feels pain?”
Now he just looked at her.
“Sorry, guess tonight’s not the time to say that, is it? Besides, you don’t fly helicopters. And I don’t own a fixed wing.”
“You could teach me to fly rotary and I do own a fixed wing.”
“Tell you what, Cruz. You can pay me to teach you to fly rotary - I am a certified instructor, you know - and you can keep your fixed wing.”
The music ended, leaving them standing in the middle of the dance floor.
“I’ll see if I can fit it into my schedule,” Cruz said and turned away.
“Yeah, you do that hotshot.”
From: A Good Place to Land - yes blatant self-promotion. What can I say?
This leads me to mention the topic of SUBTEXT. Subtext is speech that is pregnant with meaning. It’s innuendo. It’s the communication that’s going on all the time, just under the surface. Subtext is used to imply the emotion and conflict that isn’t stated outright, and it elevates even the most mundane dialogue with conflict and drama. Next time you’re reading, pay special attention to the conversation underneath the conversation.
See? I told you I didn’t have room to fully explore dialogue. So, consider this a reminder of things you likely already know. Again, I encourage you to study the fiction that you read. Look for great dialogue and figure out what makes it sparkle. Then, go forth and do likewise.
Until next month, when we take a look at set dressing, BIC-HOK (Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard).
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.