Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fights, Flirts, and Love Scenes

I suppose, for alliterative purposes, a better title for this post would have been "Fights, Flirts and Fistulas." Or "Fights, Flirts, and Farmworkers." But, since my topic is Dialogue and Favorite Scenes to Write, I'm afraid fistulas and farmworkers don't make the cut.

My time has been split this week between generating "lessons" for my online writing workshop and getting cracking on my latest fictional WIP. The two have something in common, though--getting me thinking about dialogue. Dialogue--the indispensable core of any good fight, flirt, or love scene.

The writing course, which I've titled "Polish and Publish," has its own private blog for students, complete with lessons, publishing how-tos, writing nuts and bolts, and homework. And one of the fun nuts-and-bolts posts I drafted this week was this one on Dialogue:


I'm a dialogue fiend. Love the stuff. Good dialogue reveals character, moves the plot forward, makes the reader laugh or cry or swoon. Nor is it limited to fiction--even nonfiction histories get a boost when they quote conversations or correspondence, and self-help and instructional books get spiced up by anecdotes and case histories with a little back-and-forth.

One writer who consulted me about self-publishing told me that, when she first sent her MS to friends for review, they were gentle and encouraging, but several of them suggested she "add some dialogue." Reminded of that scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph tells Mozart his music has "too many notes," I asked, "Were there specific places they wanted more dialogue?" And she replied that, actually, her YA story had no dialogue at all! Wow. All I can say is, hang on to that critique group. They're on to something.

So let's talk turkey. What are some things we should put into practice with our dialogue, and what are some things to be avoided?


  • EAVESDROP! Hang out at a coffee shop and listen in. How do people talk? What do they say, and how do they say it? What is being said between the lines? Effective dialogue sounds like real people talking. I remember, with my first novel, sending in an excerpt to a literary contest. One judge commented that a certain character used a word that people don't really use in conversation. I would have agreed that that was something to be avoided, except that I myself tended to use that word in conversation. Alas. But in general, his advice was sound.

  • USE DIALOGUE TO REVEAL CHARACTER. I touched on this in the Show-not-Tell discussion. Is your character witty? Tongue-tied? Bold? Insecure? Not a native speaker? Show us with his words.

  • GIVE EACH CHARACTER A DISTINCT VOICE. Your readers should be able to tell your characters apart. I'm not saying dispense with dialogue tags, or give characters bizarre "tells," but do think about how people you know might have expressions they tend to use. Or different levels of education. Or different vocabulary. Or different styles of speaking. Some people take a very long time to get to the point; others lay it out there lickety-split. Some people worry what everyone else is thinking and spend a lot of time smoothing feathers; others are less sensitive. In one MS I edited, I noted that several of the characters used the same unusual exclamation when they were surprised or irritated, and I flagged it.

  • USE IT TO MOVE THE PLOT ALONG. Not only does dialogue reveal character, but it can keep things in motion and add excitement. Consider:
Waving his gun, Henry ordered everyone to put their hands up. Duke bound them with cords and gagged the ones that were making too much noise.
Perfectly fine description of action, if a little ho-hum. Could the addition of dialogue accomplish the same thing, with a little more thrill?

"Put your hands up," Henry shouted, waving his gun. He jerked his chin at Duke. "Bind 'em."

"You won't get away with this," the bank manager declared amidst the screams and cries of the customers and tellers.

"And while you're at it," Henry added, "shut them up."

Used very occasionally, dialogue can also save us time, so the writer doesn't have to describe the action:
"There's something I wanted to tell you," Ray said. "No--just hang on a second. Sit down and hear me out."
When we read the lines above, we understand without being told that Ray's listener didn't want to hear it and tried to leave.

And now for the dialogue pitfalls to be avoided.

  • Don't TAG EACH SPEECH if there are only two speakers present. The reader knows that, if it isn't one person speaking, it's the other. Just do it once in a while, so the reader doesn't lose track of who's speaking. In Cormac McCarthy's wonderful novel The Road, he opted out of quote marks and dialogue tags altogether. I understand the point he was making stylistically (spare-looking text for a spare world), but there were many times when I had to go back and count and track with my finger to tell who was talking!

  • Don't MAKE EACH DIALOGUE TAG UNIQUE. Yes, sometimes speech calls for a special descriptive tag. He shouted. He snapped. He sobbed. But you have got to believe me that these should be used sparingly. If every tag is a unique action, you distract the reader from what your character is actually saying. Stick to "said" and "asked" for most dialogue, with a few different tags thrown in, if the action described is essential.

  • Don't THROW IN EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK. While I recommended you eavesdrop on others' conversations, you might sometimes come to the conclusion that people talk about some pretty dull stuff indeed. Yes, they do. Therefore, when you write dialogue, don't feel obligated to include every last thing. Every last greeting and leavetaking. What everyone ordered in the cafe. All the chitchat they indulged in before they got to the point. Such minutiae can be dispensed with with a summary phrase or sentence: "After they ordered and the waitress was gone, they got down to brass tacks." Or, "After some small talk to set them at ease, Barbara pulled out her notes and said, 'As you know, the reason I called you here was to discuss XYZ...'" There are, of course, exceptions to this advice. You may be wanting to show how your characters stay on the surface and have little to talk about. Or how they are uncomfortable with each other and dance around the subject. Perfectly okay. But make your dialogue serve your stylistic purposes. (I would also recommend you don't lead off your story with a content-less conversation, or your reader might not hang around to see more.)

  • Don't USE ANACHRONISTIC LANGUAGE. This "Don't" applies specifically to writers of historical fiction or, indeed, any story not set right now. When I was writing my ghost story, where one character came from the previous century, I frequently checked her vocabulary against the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary online. Would a particular word have been in use during her time, and would it have been used as she used it? I've even consulted the OED for slang usage in the mid-90s! Great resource. Sign in with your library card.

Tips aside, the best way to learn to write dialogue is to practice.

Dialogue Exercises:

  1. Revise the following paragraph to include dialogue. Have fun with it!
Jim and Fay got in an argument about where to send their daughter to school. Jim was all for private school, but Fay thought the local public was just fine and could save them some money. As always, Jim thought she was being penny-wise and pound-foolish, which really was his mother-in-law's fault, if he thought about it, raising Fay as she did. But they couldn't really get into all that, not with little Ellie sitting there.

  1. Choose a passage (up to a page) in your own writing and revise, focusing specifically on dialogue. Follow with a one-paragraph analysis of how and why you made changes.

And, as with all assignments, keep to the following guidelines.
  1. Electronic files compatible with Microsoft Word;
  2. Double-spaced;
  3. Have 1-inch margins;
  4. Have your name in the right-hand corner of the header;
  5. Be typed in 12-point Times New Roman (Times, if you use a Mac).
  6. Title the file “Dialogue Exercise for __(Title)________.”
  7. Attach the file to an email and send it to!

© All rights reserved.
So back to my fights, flirts and love scenes. All good fights, flirtations, and love scenes feature plenty of dialogue, which may explain why they're my favorite things to write. I even want to script people's real-live fights. One friend told me about an argument she had with her husband, and I immediately said, "Ooh! Then did you say this and this and this?" She didn't. What? What an opportunity lost, and her husband went away thinking he was right, when he was really, really wrong! I briefly considered developing an online spousal fight-coaching clinic.

Sadly (if you were thinking of signing up), the fight-coaching clinic idea didn't get off the ground, and I redirected all those energies into fiction. My characters can fight all they like. Not to mention flirt all they like, and have as many love scenes as I allow them.

In my current WIP, I'm still getting to know my protagonists and how they relate to each other and those around them, so those favorite scenes remain to be written. Something to look forward to.
"I've always heard the Irish are partial to pigs."

If you've made it through this epic post, I'd love to hear some of your favorite writers for dialogue. I'll throw one out there: Margaret Mitchell. The back-and-forth between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler* is wonderful. Revealing, biting or flirtatious, unfolding on multiple levels, and often laugh-out-loud funny (Rhett's lines, that is). A close runner-up--the delightful repartee between Lord Peter Wimsy and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers' mysteries.

And you? There are no wrong answers--not even Bella Swan and Edward "And so the lion fell in love with the lamb" Cullen!

(*More about Rhett later, since Gone with the Wind is one of the books Scott and I have chosen for this year's Literary Night. Theme: Homecoming.)

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