March 24, 2015 0 Comments
Here’s what I know that may be useful for writing dialogue. Always keep a notebook handy and write down everything you overhear or can remember from dreams! Note the accent, the patterns of speech, the way people interrupt each other. Write down what they are doing when they speak and where they are when the conversation is taking place. Scribble a few words on their phraseology and the patterns and rhythms they use.
In a diner having breakfast with a friend, we overheard this: “You’re dead meat. You’re so not worth it. I pay the friggin’ bills and you drink beer with your buddies, watch the Dolphins lose, and slobber over Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue. What? What did you say? What the f—? Take a hike, Harry. It’s over. Finished. As in done—like last night’s movie: The End.”
With that the blonde in a navy blue Nike sweat suit, slammed shut her micro-mini cell phone swathed in powder pink faux leather, tossed it in her bag, and proceeded to order breakfast.
My friend whispered, “Did you get that?”
“Every friggin’ word, Harry.”
Can I use this material? Probably not. But I was lucky enough to watch while she was on the phone and maybe her actions while she spoke to Harry could be useful in writing a kiss-off. The woman had the phone snug to one ear as she spoke into the phone and at the same time pulled out her cosmetic bag from her purse. It was a small white Fendi. From it, she extracted her mirror, a lipstick and a small pencil. The minute she flipped the cell phone back in her purse, she called the waitress over and ordered breakfast for two. Did I miss something? Is Harry going to show after all?
She then outlined her lips with the small pencil, smeared lipstick all over her lips and blotted her mouth with a brown, re-cycled paper napkin several times. She closed the compact, put it back in her purse, and smiled with smug satisfaction. The next thing that happened was that a very handsome Latino-looking man walked over and kissed her on the mouth she’d just blotted so carefully. She smiled at him, then licked her lips.
Aha! So what do I know or did I just learn about dialogue? It needs action. There are two people involved in it at least even though not both can be seen. People need people. Never leave a character alone too long so they have to speak to themselves or a mirror. The dialogue has to occur in a place, a setting, otherwise, we have “talking heads.” Someone is speaking and someone’s listening. If the other person is present, there will be body language to record. There needs to be a reaction—and though we didn’t get Harry’s because the blue-suited Nike woman didn’t give him a chance, we know several things. She was not really upset or emotionally charged about breaking up with Harry. How do we know this? Simple. She was more interested in taking out her make-up to look good for the Latino guy and ordering breakfast. No tears for blondie.
So if I were writing a break-up telephone scene I would describe her actions, using the five senses and steal some of the dialogue. Let’s approach the action and the senses and analyze what she did. She touched the phone, spoke into it, listened while she asked, What? looked at herself in the mirror, felt the lipstick go on too thickly, wiped it off, tasted the Latino’s kiss. What’s missing? Smell. Perhaps I’d write this scene adding something of the odors in the diner, the pervading smell of burnt toast, or perhaps have my blonde character apply some perfume or sniff the guy she kissed, savoring his aftershave.
The important things to remember about dialogue are these: make it sound natural and give us visuals. When writing dialogue, use contractions so it doesn’t sound stilted, omit superfluous words, such as: Okay, yes, no, perhaps, maybe, hello, well, etc. and get to the meat of what’s necessary to say: dialogue moves the action of the story along and reveals plot. Other things to do, which will come mostly in revision are these: eliminate “eye” dialect and overuse of jargon, and don’t have all your characters sound alike. Indicate who is speaking with action as well as “he said, she said,” and never assign attributes to how a person says a thing. Avoid: “she said, sweetly, he said, angrily.” Skip the adverbs and show us instead by actions. Try to keep from using names—even in multi-person scenes. We don’t usually talk like this: “Jen, do this,” or “Hattie, do that,” rather say: “Do it.” People cut off words, combine words, break off their thoughts; they interject words into others’ sentences and speech. The best way to catch errors or stick-figure dialogue is to read it out loud.