Teaser Thursday - Dialogue!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Instead of me just tossing up a piece of whatever I happen to drag out of my WIP folder, I think I kind of like doing a Teaser Thursday with a focus. And this one's focus comes from a discussion on Twitter yesterday about dialogue in writing.

There's a bit of a conundrum that happens when people try to write dialogue.

Rule #1 : it has to sound real.
Rule #2 : it can't sound like people actually speak.
Rule #3 : you aren't allowed to let your head explode reconciling 1 & 2.

I believe I have an advantage when it comes to writing dialogue because at one time I wanted to try screenwriting. (I was a teenager and screenplays were shorter than novels, shut up.)

One of the very first things I ever read as a "how to" for writing was a Screenwriting course book: Screenwriting 101: the Essential Art of Feature Film Writing, by: Neill D. Hicks. I *love* this book. It's short, to the point, and crystal clear in its approach to writing. And the absolute best thing about it is that the writing exercises geared toward screenwriting translate to novel writing without a hitch.

I've read it, scribbled in the margins to do the exercises, marked those scribbles out and re-scribbled with a new project... For me, the approach clicked, and the biggest part of that approach is learning how to handle dialogue.

If you try and write a section of dialogue the way people actually speak, what you'll end up with is a series of broken words, pauses, "um....", "like...", "you know....", that all add up to something less than eloquence. (If you want proof of this, find a couple of transcripts of taped conversations and count the awkward pauses.)

Dialogue isn't "talking", it's speech as dance, and it's up to you, as the writer, to the rhythm.

Dialogue in a book should read like dialogue in a movie sounds. It should flow in a set cadence that fits the character, setting, situation, etc. If any one of those things changes, so should the speech pattern. Dramatic monologues have their place, but so does rapid fire arguments and witty banter.

Personally, I like to do the dialogue first and then figure out what happened to make them say the words.

Rather than a traditional outline, what I usually end up with is a slugline scene heading and a conversation that I go back and craft the action around. Something like:

INT. Cafeteria -- Lunchtime

Adora and Keyan approach a table where four others are already seated. This is obviously the "Goth" table as the colors fade to monochrome. Keyan drops into a seat; Adora takes the one beside him. Introductions begin.

Yes! We are no longer outnumbered! The estrogen
levels have returned to normal!

Excuse me?

Keyan finally managed to snag another girl for the table.
I was about to choke from the testosterone fumes.

That's Rhetta. We usually ignore her.

Rhetta sticks out her tongue revealing a piercing.

And yes, it usually looks like that because I use a screenwriting program (Celtx is free). What I end up with is a dialogue heavy segment with a few clues as to appearance and action that I flesh out later.

I know that no method works for everyone, but this isn't one I've seen described often (or ever), so I thought I'd toss it out as an alternative. If you're interested, here's the final (for now at least) result of the scene snip above.

"Yes!" a smallish girl with tight black curls and a pixie-face exclaimed as I sat down. She acted like someone had just scored a touchdown. "We are no longer out of balance. The estrogen level has returned to normal."

"Excuse me?'

"Keyan finally managed to snag another girl for the table. I was about to choke from testosterone overload."

"That's Rhetta," Keyan said. "We usually pretend she's invisible."

She stuck her tongue out at him and a green barbell popped into view to match the loop in her eyebrow.

"Guys, this is Adora," Keyan said.

He sat down on a hard red bench that was bolted to the table at the end of a metal arm. I took the blue one beside him and a quiet rumble of "fresh meat" rounded the table, followed by fork pounding and insane laughter I can only assume they thought was intimidating.

"No, bad Lucas! Down!" Keyan swatted the hand of the guy closest to me who was attempting to poke one of my pink hair tufts with a finger. "She survived the buffet line and is now a confirmed vegetarian. There will be no references to meat made at her expense."

Finger-pokey guy.. er... Lucas hit him with a roll.

"Fine, you rescued the poor stray out of the cold. We'll be nice."

"No, you'll at least pretend to be human until she gets to know and love you for your freakazoid self." He threw the roll back and Lucas caught it before wiping it off on a not quite clean shirt and ripping into it with his teeth.

"Best manners, I swear." He held the mangled roll up for an oath.

"Well, she didn't run. That's one point." A monochrome girl across the table wiped a few flecks of bread mush off a large notebook covered in marker art. She clicked her pen into action and started scribbling with the pages tilted out of view.

"You're not hungry?" I asked.

"Have you smelled the food in here?" she asked me over the top of her book. The dark purple beads woven into her black hair obscured most of her face.

"Ignore her," Rhetta's voice said from the other side of Keyan. "Violet thinks if she eats something with actual caloric value that her blood count might rise making her less anemic. Then she'd cease to be tragic and pale."

"Plus she'd lose the ability to fit into a size double-zero..."

"Shut up, Rhett," Violet snapped.

"It's true," the pixie-faced brunette whispered behind her hand. "Maintaining two pounds over organ failure is the only thing she has to make Madison Ellis hate her. If she lost that, she'd have nothing to live for. And since we all know she doesn't have the guts to actually kill herself, she'd have no purpose left in life."

"Keep laughing Rhett, one day I shall eviscerate you with the written word and the only you anyone will ever see is the you I show them."

Violet gave her notebook a particularly vicious stab with her pen and flipped the page.

"She's really a sensitive soul," Rhetta whispered.

Sensitive. Right. Meanwhile, had the book been flesh it would be hemorrhaging all over the table.

Copyright -- Josin L. McQuein; 2010

6 Chiming In:

Simon Hay said...

That was cool. I feel I'm now reading like a writer, and posts like this have helped. Rather than being a reader who loves reading the, oh, is that what they did to create pace, that's clever button is switched on. This had made me more objective and critical when I read my own writing.
Thanks, Simon.

Melissa said...

This is a really interesting approach to dialogue.I love how you described dialogue as a dance. It really is.

Enjoyed the snippet with a focus, keep up the good work.

Nicole said...

Dialogue is about the only thing I haven't had trouble with *grin* maybe I should consider screenplays!?! Nahh like normal writing ;p

Abby said...

It's funny, and it does sound real. I find it hard to take dialogue from my head, where the voices make it sound normal, onto paper, where it seems stilted and weird.


Jaleh D said...

I'll have to give that a try. It might help get the ideas out of my head and onto paper faster without worrying about the fleshed out form.

Jolene Perry said...

When you mistake Brian for Brain - your spell check likes it just fine. Ask me how I know this...

Great Post by the way.

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