You said what now?
So an acquaintance of mine said on Twitter that he was working on a screenplay and posted a picture of his laptop with it open. Being the nosy inquisitive person I am, I enlarged the picture to read what he had written. Now, I know nothing about the story or the scene in particular, but it was set in an art gallery and the janitor sees a man looking at a painting and asks him if he was liking it.
Now, in my mind this janitor is either hitting on the guy or just has no idea of what social boundaries are but hey, I’m not writing it so let’s move on. The janitor asking the question was not my problem; it was the man’s answer.
The man answers back. “It’s all a bunch of meaningless lines and colors that someone tried to pass off as art, and society bought. Not me, though. I’ll be damned if I become a meaningless…” from there the picture cuts off, but I had read enough already.
Who talks like that?
In the real world the janitor, knowing now he had overstepped his bounds and was talking with a crackpot, would back out of the room slowly and let security know there was a weird, over sharing guy in the gallery and they should keep an eye on him. Now, if you know stories you know what the writer was doing—he was trying to convey the character’s personal point of view into the story so the viewer would know how he felt. In a musical it would be called an “I need or a I want” song where the character breaks into song explaining what they wanted and why they couldn’t have it. Here, it is an opening statement that gives us a feeling of who we are dealing with.
Only problem is people do not talk like that.
I mean, let’s forget the fact that these two people don’t know each other, so the information shared is completely inappropriate. What literally is being said would never be said out loud by a normal person. I mean, if you feel the need to say that art is crap, say art is crap. If you want to say that you think popular art is a scam, based solely on what society calls art, then say that. But a bunch of meaningless line and colors that someone tried to pass….
Oh, I can’t even.
The worst part, though, is the “not me” part. It is straight out of a play, where the character, looking out towards the audience but not directly, gives an emotional speech about how art is crap and this and that, and then he slams his fist into his hand and looking up towards the balcony says, “Not me, though. I refuse…”
At this point, the janitor should look at his eyes and then ask, “Excuse me, who are you talking to?” Well, he is talking to us, the audience, of course, which is fine if we accept that no one talks like that outside of a play.
If you can’t guess, our topic is dialogue and it’s uses.
Now, anyone who has read my stuff, to them I apologize. You know I write mainly in first person. I like being inside of a character’s head and seeing their thoughts and views of life, because they become the vehicle for the reader. Because of this, I don’t have to spend a lot of time wasting dialogue on I wants or I needs because the reader can literally read the character’s thoughts. It’s a cheat that works for me but doesn’t help explain how to get information out through dialogue.
The first thing we should realize is, what is the point of the dialogue in the first place? What exactly are you trying to get across in the scene, through the words? Now, what you are trying to get across in the scene and the words you actually use most of the time are completely different because of the most important part of dialogue.
Making it sound the way people actually talk.
Let’s look at a scene from Aaron Sorkin’s Sport’s Night, which I love because of the dialogue.
God, I loved that show.
Ok, so what stood out as good dialogue? Did you notice how everyone didn’t pause and wait for their turn to talk? People talk over other people, especially if they are excited or in an argument. You cannot be afraid to let a character stop another character from talking, especially if they have gotten the salient part of the sentence out already. As writers, we hate not using all our words. I mean, words are our jam. How can you ask me to not use all of them?
Easy, because again, the reader is going to help us out.
I am going to use one of my own drabbles as an example. It is a story about two guys who are trying to figure out where they are in a relationship. They are having a conversation about it, well at least one of them is.
“What are we doing?” Paul asked finally, looking up at his lover.
“You’re asking me?” Ryan asked, flabbergasted. “Are you having a stroke, this was your idea! I have no idea what we are doing at the beach.” he laughed.
“I’m not talking about the beach, dammit!” he snapped. This was not how this was supposed to go. “What are we doing?” he asked again, this time in a softer tone.
Ryan remained confused for a few seconds before his eyes widened in realization. “Oh! What are we DOING?” He rubbed the back of his head as he seemed to think about it. “You mean that doing.”
“Forget it.” Paul said dropping the picnic basket, its contents tumbling out on the towel. There were rocks, dozens and dozens of smooth rocks, each one the size of a child’s fist.
Ryan looked at them and then back to Paul. “Were you going to stone me out here? Because there are easier ways to get rid of me…”
Paul turned and began to stomp back to the car without a word.
See how at the end we got the entire point of the conversation? We don’t need to know what else Ryan was going to say because we have the gist of it. To go on is just begging to have the reader skim because they know what comes next even if the characters don’t. So don’t be afraid to just trail off or to interrupt, because that is how people talk.
The other point of the Sport’s Night scene was the metaphor.
Now, without even knowing who those characters are or their relationship, you know they are having an argument that has nothing to do with poker. Though not exactly how people talk in real life, there are times when people have conversations of a personal nature in public and use another topic to cover it. Remember, as writers we are trying to thread that needle of what people really sound like and what we want them to sound like. So if your characters use a metaphor like the poker one, don’t worry, as long as it is in line with the way they have talked before. Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin have made careers out of making characters say witty things that normal people don’t.
Now, the last point I want to hit on is the biggy when it comes to writing dialogue.
The dreaded information dump that must take place for the reader to know exactly what is going on. There is nothing worse than trying to figure out a way to get information out to the reader without stopping the story altogether, and the easiest way at times is dialogue.
Want to bring up the fact the character has had a bad love life and recently broke up with an asshole who will come back into the story later?
Sue looked over at the clock and saw it was almost time for them to leave. “So what are you doing tonight?”
John didn’t even look up as he powered down his computer, “Well, since He Who Shall Not Be Named reached in and clawed out my heart with an ice cream scoop, I plan on going home and crying myself to sleep in a deep, deep despair, hoping for death.”
“So, sitting on the couch watching Top Chef and drinking some wine?”
He nodded. “Pretty much.”
See how we got the information across without slowing the story down? In fact the information dump, if done properly, can be amusing and charming in its own way. Remember, the better you know your character, the more effective you can put words into their mouth. Don’t be afraid to really put some work into it, and not just figure out how real people talk but find out how they talk. In the Foster series you might have noticed that Brad uses a lot of sports references when he describes life, mostly baseball ones. This does two things at the same time. It reminds the audience that he is essentially a jock, even if we don’t see him play sports all that much, and two, it shows how important the sport is to him, that it permeates his thought process. Finding that cliché in a character can be the key between just talking and real dialogue.
As a last hint: when in doubt, say it out loud.
Dialogue has to sound natural and there is no better way to test that than saying it out loud yourself. When you do talk, notice the pause, the inflection, the tone you used. Those little things will register in a reader’s mind and allow them to put a voice to a character, which is invaluable when trying to create empathy.
John Goode is a regular guest contributor to The Novel Approach