February 2, 2011


This is the continuation of the posting of my notes from the Writers' Conference in San Diego at the end of January.  I went to two Dialogue classes.  The first one was a string of anecdotes, and I didn't find it very helpful.  This class was given by James Scott Bell.  He uses movies as a reference source.  I sometimes wondered about that.  Why not novels?  It reminded me of a conversation I had with Steve Minot (a professor in University of California's Creative Writing Dept) who said when he and his wife would have cocktail parties in the early days, everyone would talk about the books they'd read.  But in the later years (Steve Minot died last year), it was all about the movies, and Minot thought that movies had replaced books as the Great Universal.  I did find Bell's examples helpful, and kept noting which movies to put next on my Netflix list.


The fastest way to improve a manuscript (ms) is with dialogue, and if you can submit—in your first chapters—a scene (make sure you have a scene) with dialogue, you're ahead of the game.

Dialogue is a compression and extension of action.
It's an extension of your character's agenda.  If you have someone in the scene who doesn't have an agenda, kick them out!

Famous quote: A good story is life with the boring parts taken out.

Good Dialogue
1.     Essential to the story.  It advances the plot. It gives us story information.  (Maltese Falcon with Sam Spade & Cairo).  It reveals character.  The way Cairo talks is very different than Sam Spade. Dialogue can reveal theme.  Some writers know their theme, but other writers discover it as they go.  If I take my character and project them twenty years in the future and someone asks them "Why did you have to go through that?" they'd be able to answer the question in larger themes.  Think of the Life lesson in the movie Wizard of Oz: There's no place like home, but that's the counter of what they voice at the beginning.
2.     It comes from one character to another, naturally.  No excessive expository information Avoid those lines like: "Here we are in sunny Spain!" This would be something that both characters know (but that the audience doesn't), so they wouldn't have to say it.
3.     Conflict and Tension—Why? Because in good dialogue 1) the dull parts taken out, and 2) someone in your scene is worried about something.  Every character in your scene has something on their mind, something they are worried about.  Butch and Sundance "I can't swim."  "But we're going to jump."  Conflict between allies.  Conflict can come from something that doesn't sound complete—missing information—mystery can increase tension.  Mystery is like a maze—you're trying to find the answers, but suspense is like a tight coil, which gets tighter and tighter as the scene goes on.
4.     Sounds just right for the piece.  Be aware of dialogue that shouts "I'm great dialogue."  Needs to be effective without calling attention to itself. (Not the same as memorable dialogue).
5.     Sounds just right for each character.  What kind of vocabulary does your character use? Does it fit their background? Education? Demographic? Favorite words or expressions? Regionalisms?  Peer groups?  (e.g.: skateboarders, professions, lawyers, doctors, etc.)  What kinds of things to you say to other doctors that we patients don't normally hear? (interview a doctor if you're writing about dr.).  Syntax—words and phrases and the way people say them—word order, rhythm, combinations of words.
6.     Not real life speech.  Don't use hesitators (uh, um, well) or only use them if there's a reason for them.  Again, if it's part of their agenda—make it logical.
7.     Compression.  Dialogue is honed down, rather than puffed out.  We like white space these days—interruptions, action, call all give us that white space.
8.     Subtext.  What is actually said in the scene may not be what is being communicated.  Think of an iceberg.  On the top is the scene being played out. Underneath: back story, character relationships, thematic elements, and the meaning of those things.  They naturally come up to the top, but in a subtle way. Think of Casablanca—scene with Rick, Nazi dude, and French captain.  Characters are talking that way because of backstory, of hidden agendas, of attitude, made memorable by subtext.

Tools to Write Good Dialogue
1.     Orchestration—you can get good dialogue before you write a single line of it by how you orchestrate your characters.  Create them with possibility of conflict with the other characters.  Different agendas, different personality types.  (Think main characters in City Slickers.)   The dialogue will almost happen by itself.
2.     Transactional analysis, which comes from the book Games People Play.  The theme of that book was that we tend to play to play roles in our relationships and we speak in scripts.  Three main roles: parent, adult, child.  If you have two characters in a scene, ask what role to they think they play in this scene.  Two adults are boring—what if one had a parental role and one had a child role.  (Think Cop and person being interrogated.)  Great conflict.  Give thought to the power levels of your characters.  What role are they playing?
3.     Compression.  Actually dropping words—cut them out of your dialogue, esp. at the beginning and the end.  The emotion is there because the words were actually cut, not added.
4.     Cast the Character.  Google images can give you a headshot,  so you can see and hear the character before you write.  Having this image helps you write dialogue in the character's voice, not your voice.
5.     Act it Out.  Literally.
6.     One gem per act, or Curving the Language.  Make your dialogue memorable by curving the language.  Do you ever later say "Wow, I wish I'd said that."  So, write a line in your dialogue, then curve it—play with it.  "She looked like  a million dollars" can morph into "She looked like a million bucks--tax free."
7.     Place exposition within confrontation.  One way to get exposition/explanatory info is in tense conversation/anger.  (On the Waterfront with Brando.) 
8.     Sidestep.  "On the nose dialogue" is a phrase in screenwriting which means there is a statement, then a direct response, then another statement, then the direct response. Some of this will exist in your novel, but you can increase conflict by doing off-center stuff.  Why do some people not answer the question?  Or answer with a question?  Or an interruption?  Or a sudden punch?  He then did a series of short Q/A with an imaginary husband and wife, showing these types of things.
9.     Use silence, or an action beat instead of a verbal response.  (Think of Hemingways' short story Hills like White Elephants.)  It's all done through dialogue, or what is NOT said.
10.  Let if Flow Exercise.  Write the whole scene in dialogue, letting the characters almost improvise—just let them go.  They begin to take on distinctions that you might not think of.  But then, take that, and see if you can identify the most powerful line in that scene--pull out that out and make it the key to the whole scene.
11.  Minimize.  Take a scene you've written—a dialogue-heavy scene—and then see how much dialogue you can cut.
12.  Attributions/Tag Lines--These things move in waves, but there seems to be more minimalism currently in vogue.  The dialogue itself should tell us how it's being said.  Minimal tags are sort of invisible, which is good.  Occasionally using an action beat, if that action is integral to the scene.  Try to minimize the tags, but don't eliminate them.  Sometimes too many action beats can distract the reader.  Every time you use an action beat, the reader is having to picture it—and it moves the concentration of the reader from the dialogue into the action.  Adverbs—avoid.  Use VERY sparingly.  How can I rewrite the dialogue or the action around it to get rid of the adverbs? should be asked.

1 comment:

  1. I'm thinking about dialogue as it relates to elementary writers. They are so anxious to use dialogue once they discover it, but I think a few of these notes could be transformed into mini-lessons, especially #1.

    Also, what if we collaboratively wrote an entire story in dialogue (since that is a common occurance I observe) and modeled how to minimize, replace with action, etc. Thanks for sharing and getting my wheels turning!