Three Things Authors Need to Know about Dialogue by Chéri Vausé
by Chéri Vausé
Three Things Authors Need to Know
1. Don’t write dialogue the way people talk Sol Stein, the great editor and author of luminaries like Elia Kazan and James Baldwin, taught a class on dialogue that had never been taught to writers before. He taught at University of California at Irvine and had to hold the class in a medical amphitheater to house the number of writers taking his course. The first thing he said was critical. Dialogue is a foreign language. What that means is when you write you don’t write the way you were taught to speak. It must be adversarial, filled with nuance and revelatory language, but not so much for what is said, but what is meant. I love the example he uses: Elmore Leonard: “Let’s get a drink, and talk for a few days.” This line is rife with meaning. And, I’m sure you didn’t learn to talk like that.
2. Conflict is critical in dialogue
This doesn’t mean people need to shout, or to use profanity. Yes, use profanity sparingly. Curse words should only be used when absolutely necessary. So far, I haven’t found them necessary in any of my stories. Using lots of profanity is an easy way out of designing dialogue between characters that reveals what they are made of and where they are going. It should express conflict in order to thrust the story forward. Using the “f” word does neither. It also shows a lack of imagination. Think of this. How do you write a scene between two people where one is so angry they are ready to kill? It would be easy to say, “I’m gonna kill that motherf….” All this line shows is anger and nothing else. I personally love the line that Alan Rickman uses in Robin Hood where he screams, “I’m going to cut out his heart with a spoon!” Hmm. Don’t you think that gives you a better visual?
3. Dialogue should also show an adversarial bent
Sol Stein says it should “show sparks.” Crackle is another way of expressing it. Here’s an example from my book The Night Shadow: “And to think I could be at home cleaning the cat box,” Esther Charlemagne said. “Watching for a Peeping Tom is so much better.” You know at least a half dozen things about this character. Her relationship to the job and her partner is definitely adversarial. It’s the opening gambit and you already know she’s sarcastic, bored, she owns a cat, and it sounds suspiciously like they are on a stakeout… well, you get the point. Dialogue that snaps and crackles and lights a fire will make your story unforgettable. Readers love those sparks, and you won’t just have a reader of one book, but a follower.
Author bio: Chéri Vausé
Miss Vausé spent more than twenty years teaching theology and volunteering. She decided late in life to change careers and begin writing novels. With all her children grown, she turned her dining room table into a desk and research center, and now she serves up murder on an icy platter rather. She lives on a small ranch in Central Texas with her husband and two dogs, Scully and Mulder.Scully is a Coydog (halfbeagle and half coyote) with reddish brown hair. Mulder is a black Great Pyrenees. Together they equal an XFile.Tags: authors, Dialogue, Elmore Leonard, Sol Stein #writers