Let's Talk Dialogue

July 2, 2019

Let’s talk Dialogue, from an actor's point of view.

 

 

We all know its importance. Writers are judged by their dialogue. Put another way, readers judge books by it. Editors and agents judge manuscripts by it. Get it wrong and you’re doomed. Get it right and you are believable. Do it great, and you can elevate your book from average to exceptional.

 

 As a writer, thespian and avid reader with a monthly review column, I have high expectations for dialogue.  Here are three dos and three don’ts, along with a writing pointer.

 

Let’s start with the don’ts.

 

DON’T:

 

Forget Character

 

Be Boring

 

Forget the Story

 

Now for the dos.

 

DO:

 

Drive home Character

 

Allow Sharp Turns

 

Propel the Story Forward

 

Writing tip:  Edit dialogue after writing the manuscript, probably as a part of your second or third edit. The best dialogue likely won't flow from the beginning. But if you follow the above, you’ll be on course as your characters begin to set their dialogue and personalities, and you can make necessary changes in an edit. 

 

Writing is akin to the play creation process in live theater.  Often an actor must try on the character (just as a director or writer must try on the story). She must wear it around a bit, experiment with it, and charge forward, before she nails it.

 

Same with writing. If your dialogue is good right off the bat, great! Then, if you work it even harder, you’ll make it unforgettable. And if you hate it, don’t throw away your story. Instead, allow it to breathe a bit, then come back to it and check the above lists against the dialogue. These tips will definitely help.

 

Let’s delve in further. What do I mean by: Character, Story, and Never Boring vs. Sharp Turns, or surprises?

 

I mean that no character comes to the table willing to partake in the story dialogue. Characters are innately selfish. They only care about what they want, and everything they say shows it. Also, if a character launches into the most brilliant speech, but the speech doesn’t serve the story being told, it’s got to go. (Do copy and paste it to a new document and save it in your "Cut" folder, because you might need it someday.)  

 

As to the twist, you’ll need to borrow your friends for this one, (then also observe this while watching a movie or TV).  Don’t tell them what you are doing, but, next time you get together, listen to the conversation as if you are an observer from above. Note how the chatter isn’t in order, yet somehow it comes around complete. Especially for a gaggle of older women. They are all laughing and talking and, oops, they missed the point, then boom, they got it. I don’t know how it happens but it does, like magic. 

 

Or, if it’s a group who isn’t in agreement, you’ll still notice how the conversation doesn’t flow. Watch a long married couple. Notice how one can make a perfectly nice, innocent sounding remark, and the other flies off the handle. Character and story cause that. Tap into that with material that serves your story, and you have great conflict in your novel.

 

Unless they have a strict monitor, people do not stay on point in life or in stories. In well told stories, characters rarely directly answer each other until they must. This is the spice of life. Don’t be that author who monitors dialogue into an orderly question/answer; instead, let it happen organically. In fact, rejoice when your character changes everything with a weird curveball. Let that zinger fly and watch your dialogue sing.

 

A short look at some dialogue from the award winning play INHERIT THE WIND, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, will help me better demonstrate all of the above. 

 

As an intro, Bert and Rachel are lovers in the early part of the 20th century, but Rachel is the minister’s daughter and Bert is the science teacher who dared defy state laws against teaching evolution. He’s now in jail because of it and she’s risking her father’s wrath to go see him. She’s also trying to talk him into withdrawing from the fight; of course, he is resisting. Great conflict from the set up, as they both have far different goals, yet one thing is holding them together: they love each other.

 

Character, Story, NOT Boring, definitely some surprising twists in the dialogue. Here it is, without any stage directions, from my actor’s version:

RACHEL

Hello,  Bert.

 

CATES

Rache, I told you not to come here.

 

RACHEL

I couldn’t help it. Nobody saw me. Mr. Meeker won’t tell.  I keep thinking of you, locked up here—

 

CATES

You know something funny? The food’s better than the boarding house. And you’d better not tell anybody how cool it is down there, or we’ll have a crime wave every summer.

 

RACHEL

I stopped by your place and picked up some of your things.  A clean shirt, your best tie, some handkerchiefs.

 

CATES

Thanks.

 

RACHEL

Bert, why don’t you tell ‘em it was all a joke? Tell ‘em you didn’t mean to break a law, and you won’t do it again!

 

CATES

I suppose everybody’s all steamed up about Brady coming.

 

RACHEL

He’s coming in on a special train out of Chattanooga. Pa’s going to the station to meet him. Everybody is!

 

CATES

Strike up the band.

 

RACHEL

Bert, it’s still not too late. Why can’t you admit you’re wrong? If the biggest man in the country—next to the President, maybe—if Mathew Harrison Brady comes here to tell the whole world

how wrong you are—

 

CATES

You still think I did wrong?

 

RACHEL

Why did you do it?

 

CATES

You know why I did it. I had the book in my hand, Hunter’s Civic Biology. I opened it up, and read my sophomore science class Chapter 17, Darwin’s Origin of Species. All it says is that man wasn’t just stuck here like a geranium in a flower pot; that living comes from a long miracle, it didn’t just happen in seven days.

 

RACHEL

There’s a law against it.

 

CATES

I know that.

 

RACHEL

Everybody says what you did is bad.

 

CATES

It isn’t as simple as that. Good or bad, black or white, night or day. Do you know, at the top of the world the twilight is six months long?

 

RACHEL

But we don’t live at the top of the world. We live in Hillsboro, and when the sun goes down, its dark. And why do you try to make it

different? . . . Here.

 

CATES

Thanks, Rache.

 

RACHEL

Why can’t you be on the right side of things?

 

CATES

Your father’s side. . . . Rache—love me!

Alright. Wow. That’s tight, isn’t it?  Tells you what you need to know about each character, propels the story forward, isn’t boring, and makes sharp turns.  (Seriously, the whole thing is like that, not a wasted word. You should read it. Reading this play will make you a better writer. Better yet, go see it, or go secure the rights to put it on in your courthouse. You’ll pack the house and thoroughly enjoy yourself).

 

Let’s look at it a bit closer. And to save space, I am going to color code for CHARACTER, STORY, and SURPRISING. Most serve any number of these purposes, so I’ll color code the most prevalent and break into discussion along the way. (My apologies, for some reason the color doesn't show on mobile, for the time being). 

RACHEL

Hello, Bert.

 

CATES

Rache, I told you not to come here.

 

His answer is a bit surprising. You might expect him to say: Hello Rachel or Hello Darling, followed by: How are you? Why are you here? How is the weather? Thank God you’ve come, do you still love me, do you hate me? Yet, he cuts to the chase. It serves his character and it’s not boring.

 

Point: Avoid the mundane, the over chat. Choose the character most in turmoil or most likely to pop off or come out of left field (to serve their character or the story), and drop the niceties. Also note, don’t you love how—by his simple “Rache”—you know how much he cares about her? It’s more effective than darling because it’s personal. 

 

One more thought. In a play, characters must always call each other by name, at least in the beginning, so the audience knows who they are. Novel writers don’t have to do this, and we must avoid the info dump, such as:

 

“Hello, Bert Cates, my boyfriend and the first science teacher in America to ever be arrested for teaching evolution in class. How could you, you know my father the preacher will never let us marry now. Why do you always have to be this way?”

 

While Rachel could say a version of this, adding in all the identifiers and extras they both know is not natural. It’s also boring and doesn’t show character. 

RACHEL

I couldn’t help it. Nobody saw me. Mr. Meeker won’t tell.  I keep thinking of you, locked up here—

 

CATES

You know something funny? The food’s better than the boarding house. And you’d better not tell anybody how cool it is down there, or we’ll have a crime wave every summer.

 

Now, why did he do that? Interrupt her with some bad jokes? It’s character, it shows he loves her, he’s trying to make light of his situation, and it also shows he may have quite a backbone. He’s being a man. Also, its not boring. It’s a surprise, he’s in jail, you don’t expect him to tell a joke. It pulls us in, because it’s interesting. There is something going on here.  

RACHEL

I stopped by your place and picked up some of your things.  A clean shirt, your best tie, some handkerchiefs.

 

Go back and read his line before this.  He’s telling a joke and she goes on with what she’s brought him, why she’s here. It isn’t interesting, except for the fact that she’s so intent on it. And it also reminds us he needs nice clothes because he’s being tried as a criminal. We are finally getting somewhere with the story and steadfast Rachel is the one telling it to us.

CATES

Thanks.

 

RACHEL

Bert, why don’t you tell ‘em it was all a joke? Tell ‘em you didn’t mean to break a law, and you won’t do it again!

 

CATES

I suppose everybody’s all steamed up about Brady coming.

 

Rachel is pretty dogmatic, as you’d expect a preacher’s daughter to be. She sticks to the point, so her comment shows her character, though she’s also telling the story. Meanwhile, Cates, true to character, is still not on point, at least until he mentions Brady. If he had answered her question, the scene would be over, no more character, no more tension, no more story.  His sharp turn in the dialogue builds the tension instead of snuffing it out.

RACHEL

He’s coming in on a special train out of Chattanooga. Pa’s going to the station to meet him. Everybody is!

 

CATES

Strike up the band.

 

Another interesting answer, definitely serving his character. He’s not a joiner. He finally stood up against tyranny, the herd, the crowd theory, and he’s not going back. Notice how every swerve ball Cates pitches either serves story or character, or both. His words aren’t what you expect him to say, but they aren’t wasted words. Also notice how, during this near opening scene of the play, Cates is getting to throw most of the curveballs. His character fits curve ball throwing, Rachel's doesn't, at this point. Right now, she must drive. Have you figured out which of them has the greatest character arc?  

RACHEL

Bert, it’s still not too late. Why can’t you admit you’re wrong? If the biggest man in the country—next to the President, maybe—if Mathew Harrison Brady comes here to tell the whole world

how wrong you are—

 

See how she’s sticking to the story? She can’t even consider veering off path. You begin to wonder, will she, as a character, ever be able to shift? Also, look how she’s still telling the story, based on an argument she’s having with him in her head. This makes the information being given come out in an interesting way, instead of as an info dump.

CATES

You still think I did wrong?

 

Woe. This is the first true thing from Cates. And it shows the depths of his feeling. But this isn’t just character. This may be the crux of Cates’ story. Can he live with it, if his true love condemns him? Can he go through with his moment of anarchy?

RACHEL

Why did you do it?

 

CATES

You know why I did it. I had the book in my hand, Hunter’s Civic Biology. I opened it up, and read my sophomore science class Chapter 17, Darwin’s Origin of Species. All it says is that man wasn’t just stuck here like a geranium in a flower pot; that living comes from a long miracle, it didn’t just happen in seven days.

 

We finally get to hear what happened, and Cates is actually being forthright, though he’s still obviously showing off. It’s nice to see his character as Cates serves up a bit of Darwin in Cates’ own words.

RACHEL

There’s a law against it.

 

CATES

I know that.

 

RACHEL

Everybody says what you did is bad.

 

CATES

It isn’t as simple as that. Good or bad, black or white, night or day. Do you know, at the top of the world the twilight is six months long?

 

Why is he swerving again? Consider how straight forward their dialogue has been on this page, even though it is sticking to their characters. Any more straight and we’ll lose conflict, it will become boring. Time for a swerve ball, from the character who, at this moment, seems to have the most to lose and the biggest ability to knock it out of the park.

RACHEL

But we don’t live at the top of the world. We live in Hillsboro, and when the sun goes down, its dark. And why do you try to

make it different? . . . Here.

 

CATES

Thanks, Rache.

 

You need a bit of the missing stage direction here. She’s handed him his clothing. And then she’s turned to go. Again, Rachel is staying true to her character, while she sees him sticking with what she’s realizing is his true self. This moment serves great tension, because of course the crowd was expecting a love scene. It’s definitely not boring; the crowd is worrying they aren’t going to get the love scene.

RACHEL

Why can’t you be on the right side of things?

 

CATES

Your father’s side. . . . Rache—love me!

 

Nice, boom. Now it's served up, love and conflict, hand in hand. He knows she's got an impossible choice, her father or him, and he finally says exactly what he wants. 

Character, story, NOT Boring. Character, Story, Twist. Character, Story, Woe—I’ve got to find out more about these people.  That is how to let dialogue flow to your best advantage. That is how to hook your reader. 

Take away: You could study this dialogue over and over for many tricks of the trade. But let's keep it simple. If you only take one thing away from this dialogue discussion, make it this: Allow your characters to speak freely, so long as it shows their character or story. Let them be true to character and throw those curve balls. Only then will they truly come alive.

Homework: Don’t just take my word for it.  Turn to your favorite books, find that passage you remember, or find when some interesting characters meet. Study the dialogue. Then, go back and look at your dialogue. Where have you forced contrite question and answer, and what does your character really want, need, to say? Let them say it, let them blurt it out, and see if your story isn’t better served for it.

 

Other examples:

 

Page 1, A Gentleman from Moscow, by Amor Towles.  The action opens in court, misbehavior is going on, and it is completely true to character.

 

Second Chapter, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, page 67 in my worn prize winner labeled paperback. Ada finally meets Ruby. Ruby is a wonderful character who helps Ada in more ways than one. You can glean Ada’s character arc from this exchange alone, while you love Ruby’s sass.

 

Chapter VI, Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, beginning about page 115-120, Scarlet’s  infamous Rhett exchange, starting with Ashley. Both men propel Scarlet forward while putting her off, with very different styles.

 

For more on dialogue see:

 

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript, by James Scott Bell

 

Dynamic Dialogue: Letting Your Story Speak, by William Bernhardt. Get the audio of this, it's worth the time to hear the lecture.  You can get the ebook, too, for cheap. I love Bernhardt's entire Red Sneaker Series.

 

The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings that Sell, by Paula Munier, Chapter Six.

 

Lecture Thirteen, “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction,” The Great Courses, by James Scott Bell.  I listened to this lecture the day after I’d written this article.  It goes much deeper, has more examples, including the term “On the Nose” for that boring, flowing dialogue I mentioned, which Bell says will send Hollywood running the other direction. It’s a great lecture series that I highly recommend (I’m enjoying it all.)

 

When I’m deep in writing, you can bet that I’ll be reading or listening to a craft book, just to remind me and stretch me, even for only 5-10 minutes a day. Trust me, it fine tunes you and revs you up, all at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

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