Day Fifteen – Add Dialogue to the Scene
How we talk and what we say is part of our personality and our character. Others will often judge us by our speech (the content as well as manner), may even identify us by the way we talk.
For instance, because I still have a recognisable accent people will refer to me as ‘that Scotswoman’,’the Scots lass’, ‘the lady with an accent’, ‘the woman who speaks funny’, ‘Jock’, ‘the Pommy’, ‘the Brit’, ‘the Irish one’ – I’ve also had variations not so complimentary ‘the foreigner’, ‘the red-ragger’ ‘that wog’ …
What you say and how you say it is important. It is important in real life and therefore is important in writing – with a few tricks and rules of what not to do thrown in.
People pick up your mood by your tone of voice – those who know you will not only pick up the obvious mood but also the nuances.
You know, how a domestic scene can play out:
Do you like my new dress?
A few seconds pause.
Of course, I do, dear.
You didn’t even look.
Yes, I did dear.
No, you didn’t.
Remote Control for TV is grabbed, stabbed and television silenced.
You can have a really good look now.
Hmmm. Very… nice… dear.
Dialogue Is Important
But it can be difficult to write so that it sounds natural. you don’t want your characters to sound like a talking statue – wooden, without warmth, boring, unrealistic…
Dialogue is difficult to master as a writer. You have to constantly work at it to sound natural but you can’t be over the top with accents or else characters can become caricatures.
Most people don’t speak in grammatical or even complete sentences but you can’t write in all the ums and ahs either. There has to be a balance.
It is as author Stephen King advises,
“Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.”
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino adds,
“If I’m doing my job right, then I’m not writing dialogue; the characters are saying the dialogue, and I’m just jotting it down.”
This is what I tried to do in a class exercise years ago – the students could choose a picture as a prompt and had to write more than one voice into the scene without using he said, she said etc. A Fishy Story by Mairi Neil
Try these simple exercises—
• Go to a busy place and listen to people. Dialogue moves a story along quite quickly but it must sound authentic.
At the moment with COVID-19 if you are in lockdown, you will have to rely on memory or eavesdrop on neighbours or whoever is sharing your house, or put on a DVD of a film or watch a documentary, game show, (even adverts) to make notes of conversations. (Scroll down for exercises)
If people are with friends or family, they will speak more naturally. Find someone who is sitting with a friend and listen (don’t be too intrusive or you might be accused of stalking or receive threats with violence for being rude and nosy!).
If you’re in a coffee shop, you might overhear people talking to friends about what’s been going on in their life. This is the best way to hear a conversation you can write as natural dialogue. For me, the best inspiration for stories and dialogue tips found when travelling on public transport.
The old man eased into the seat opposite and raised his trilby. His courteous nod revealed a bald patch atop thinning grey hair. A Lancashire brogue boomed, ‘Morning ma’am, Fred’s the name, pension bludger’s me game.’
Doris smiled. In her cultured Australian accent, she said, ‘I’m Doris and I’m retired too.’
‘I’m eighty-five,’ Fred said waving a gnarled hand, ‘and feeling it today.’ His rheumy blue eyes darted from Doris to other passengers engrossed in conversation or plugged into mp3 players. ‘ I don’t know why I’m still alive,’ he added with a fit of coughing.
Brown eyes widened as Doris squirmed in the vinyl seat; picked at an imaginary spot on her linen skirt. In a barely audible voice, she said, ‘I’m eighty-five too and thank God for still being here.’ She blinked. ‘Many of my friends aren’t.’
Fred adjusted silver-rimmed spectacles slipping close to the edge of his hooked nose. He rubbed at his short beard; licked creased lips. A garden gnome coming to life flashed into Doris’s mind, but her smile disappeared when he said, ‘I don’t believe in God or Eternal Life. Don’t worry about shuffling off. Don’t give a toss what happens when I die.’
Doris kneaded her wedding ring and clasped her hands to still restless fingers. Fair eyelashes flickered behind tortoiseshell glass frames as she noted Fred’s blue-grey cotton bomber-jacket and matching trousers, his fashionable fine-checked shirt. Tieless, but neat; plus his black leather loafers gleamed and screamed ex-army. Arthur always said, ‘you can tell an ex-serviceman by their polished shoes.’ He was inevitably right.
Not wanting to give offence, she chose her words, adopting the placating tone she used when her husband got in one of his moods. ‘Our generation, who served throughout the war, question what we were taught to believe.’ She tensed thin shoulders. ‘A wiser power than us will reveal the truth when ready.’
Fred ignored the last sentence. ‘That’s right love, eight years in the Royal Navy – joined up for the duration and stayed on a bit.’ His voice flattened, ‘survived being bombed, being sunk twice and,’ he ended with a flourish, ‘bad grub and too much grog.’
Doris laughed. Students sitting nearby smirked, the plump matron lowered her magazine. Doris thought of Arthur and the legacy of his experience. The tram stuttered past towering office blocks, darkened inside as a large cloud swallowed the sun. She shivered. Did Fred suffer night sweats and awful dreams? She remembered Arthur’s flashbacks of the trauma of his war; his years of heavy drinking. Did Fred’s wife contend with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts amid his jolliness?
She forced her attention to the present as her companion said, ‘I had eight brothers you know –– and they’re all dead. I’m the lucky last!’ He paused. ‘Well, I don’t know about luck, but I’m the bloody last.’
from Just for The Moment, Mairi Neil
• Watch a good movie. Quentin Tarantino movies are known for their excellent dialogue, but there’s an endless list of what you can watch to improve your writing. Dialogue is usually well planned in films for maximum value. There’s only a limited amount of time to say something on the screen. The film is a great reference for studying good AND bad dialogue.
• Write a scene where each character can only say one sentence. How will you convey what they’re trying to say and move the story along with a limited amount of dialogue? This will also help you improve your descriptive writing. Remember, sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. You want to show your readers what’s going on, not tell them.
• Watch a clip from either a TV show or a movie, and rewrite the dialogue in that scene. How can you improve it? What can be cut out? What can be added? This will help you understand dialogue and how you can improve your own.
Be a good observer and listener
Identify some key variables and play with them. if you write good dialogue, the reader feels they are in the story with the character. They are right there and can hear the voice. You have to avoid just having talking heads with no real action or using the dialogue to dump a lot of information rather than move the story forward.
Think back and analyse a recent conversation and ask these questions:
- What was said?
- How was it said?
- Who said it?
- Why was it said?
- How did you perceive it?
If you can remember the last argument, debate or disagreement you had or witnessed even better to capture it in words.
If you can “hear” the character’s voice in your head, that’s better than any worksheet. Think of the key variables influencing dialogue:
Perhaps goals and agendas, characters’ knowledge of each other, characters’ attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters …
- What type of vocabulary does a character use (formal, slang, profane, simple sophisticated… )
- How does the character structure their sentences (hesitations, complex or simple, fragmented, long-winded… )
- What attitude or tone of voice does the character have (abrupt, sarcastic, imperious, humble, polite, rude, boastful, flirtatious, angry, pedantic… )
- What subject matter or commentary does the character prefer ( egotistic, talking about self, sensitive, gossipy, apologetic, religious, anxious, worried about money, bombastic…)
Here is a story I wrote from a prompt that said you had to have three characters with very different voices Without Grace a short story Mairi Neil
It is also important to remember that silence or a pause in a scene can be realistic dialogue and reveal more about the character and plot development than pages of dialogue or telling.
Action is the best way to show external conflict and dialogue and internalisation by the character (thoughts) the best ways to present the internal struggles.
Your Turn To Write
I’ve chosen some pictures of scenes that scream story – you can manipulate the setting and people to any country or era you choose.
I love Edward Hopper‘s paintings – they are evocative of an America from an era I remember in movies, television shows and many novels.
These pictures are from a beautiful book of his most famous works I picked up in a wonderful bookshop in Melbourne’s centre. They sold Remainder hardback stock at a fraction of the original cost. I’ve never been in a job with a high salary but when I was young and single and working in the city in the 70s and 80s, I haunted Mary Martin’s bookshop.
Throughout his career, Edward Hopper was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. Use your imagination and write about the characters.
Reveal their personalities and character through dialogue as well as behaviour.
Things to think about:
You can write from the point of view of one character – what is their goal or agenda?
- Does the non-point of view character have a hidden agenda? What is their backstory?
- Change one character’s attitude toward the other
- Change one character’s knowledge about the other.
- Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses)
If these pictures don’t spark your imagination then practise writing dialogue by:
Write a scene with two characters having an extremely tense conversation in a peaceful setting such as
- the botanical gardens,
- an avenue of cherry blossom trees,
- an empty beach
- an empty church
- a cemetery
Imagine a courtroom scene or a police interview room, a telephone conversation between a teenager and parent, or a scene at a reception desk where there has been a mistake with a booking.