Writing Dialogue

*N.B: Warning, contains offensive language.

 

“Good morning readers, and welcome to another post on Flailing Through Life.”

“Hi! Another day, another post!”

“Hey! You! Yes you! Come and read this, no, don’t look over there, look here!”

 

As dialogue, which is preferable? Which grabs attention quickest? Which is most appropriate for your scene? Some of you are experienced writers, so you already have a handle on this aspect of the craft, but we can all do with a little extra topping on the ice-cream sundae of the written word – couldn’t we?

There are a few successful novels and novellas that contain no dialogue whatsoever, Shikasta by Doris Lessing being one of them; the story is presented in a series of reports from an alien who inhabits earth. Another is Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, which is created through diary entries. However today, let’s look at how we make people talk.

Dialogue exists to bring your characters to life, it makes them appear ‘real’, it allows for interaction between characters, it reveals what sort of person he or she is. And if done well, it can make your writing come alive.

I am a massive movie fan, I watch films all of the time, I spent many hours in my childhood sitting indoors on a sunny day, with the curtains partially drawn, watching old black and white movies; mostly British or French. I am a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino films – and his dialogue is perfect.

Take a look at this section from Reservoir Dogs – Mr White does not want to tip the waitress when everyone else has done so:

                          

            NICE GUY EDDIE

                Okay, everybody cough up green for

                the little lady.

       Everybody whips out a buck, and throws it on the table.

       Everybody, that is, except Mr. White.

                              NICE GUY EDDIE

                 C’mon, throw in a buck.

                        WHITE

                 Uh-uh.  I don’t tip.

                              NICE GUY EDDIE

                 Whaddaya mean you don’t tip?

                        WHITE

                 I don’t believe in it.

                              NICE GUY EDDIE

                 You don’t believe in tipping?

                      PINK

                         (laughing)

                 I love this kid, he’s a madman,

                 this guy.

                      BLONDE

                 Do you have any idea what these

                 ladies make?  They make shit.

                     WHITE

                 Don’t give me that.  She don’t

                 make enough money, she can quit.

       Everybody laughs.

                              NICE GUY EDDIE

                 I don’t even know a Jew who’d have

                 the balls to say that.  So let’s

                 get this straight. You never ever

                 tip?

                    WHITE

                 I don’t tip because society says I

                 gotta.  I tip when somebody

                 deserves a tip.  When somebody

                 really puts forth an effort, they

                 deserve a little something extra.

                 But this tipping automatically,

                 that shit’s for the birds.  As far

                 as I’m concerned, they’re just

                 doin their job.

                           BLUE

                 Our girl was nice.

                           WHITE

                 Our girl was okay.  She didn’t do

                 anything special.

                          BLONDE

                 What’s something special, take ya

                 in the kitchen and suck your dick?

ReservoirDogsTipping

So what sort of people are they? Sure, when you watch the movie you can see them all sat around in their matching black and white, but what does this little section tell us about Mr. White? The dialogue is about a mundane subject; tipping, but it is interesting because of the people who are having the conversation as much as anything else; makes it kind of weird (and if you’re like me, then comical) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4sbYy0WdGQ&list=RDV4sbYy0WdGQ#t=0

Tarantino does this repeatedly in his films. We get two or more characters who we know, as the audience, are awful people; killers, murderer’s, punks, criminals and so forth. Then he gives them this dialogue about everyday stuff, it is the Juxtapositioning of dialogue and character expectation that creates interest and tension.

Here’s another. In Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent, hit-men for Marcellus Wallace, are in the apartment of some college kids who tried to pull one over on Wallace. It’s payback time. We the audience kind of know this, but what happens is this –

 

                                    JULES

                         Good for you. Looks like me and

                         Vincent caught you at breakfast,

                         sorry ’bout that.  What’cha eatin’?

                                     BRETT

                         Hamburgers.

                                     JULES

                         Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any

                         nutritious breakfast. What kinda

                         hamburgers?

                                     BRETT

                         Cheeseburgers.

                                     JULES

                         No, I mean where did you get’em?

                         MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Jack-in-the-

                         Box, where?

                                     BRETT

                         Big Kahuna Burger.

                                     JULES

                         Big Kahuna Burger. That’s that

                         Hawaiian burger joint. I heard they

                         got some tasty burgers. I ain’t never

                         had one myself, how are they?

                                     BRETT

                         They’re good.

                                     JULES

                         Mind if I try one of yours?

                                     BRETT

                         No.

                                     JULES

                         Yours is this one, right?

                                     BRETT

                         Yeah.

               Jules grabs the burger and take a bite of it.

                                     JULES

                         Uuummmm, that’s a tasty burger.

                              (to Vincent)

                         Vince, you ever try a Big Kahuna

                         Burger?

                                     VINCENT

                         No.

               Jules holds out the Big Kahuna.

                                     JULES

                         You wanna bite, they’re real good.

                                     VINCENT

                         I ain’t hungry.

                                     JULES

                         Well, if you like hamburgers give

                         ’em a try sometime. Me, I can’t

                         usually eat ’em ’cause my girlfriend’s

                         a vegetarian. Which more or less

                         makes me a vegetarian, but I sure

                         love the taste of a good burger.

                              (to Brett)

                         You know what they call a Quarter

                         Pounder with Cheese in France?

                                     BRETT

                         No.

                                     JULES

                         Tell ’em, Vincent.

                                     VINCENT

                         Royale with Cheese.

                                     JULES

                         Royale with Cheese, you know why

                         they call it that?

                                     BRETT

                         Because of the metric system?

                                     JULES

                         Check out the big brain on Brett.

                         You’a smart motherfucker, that’s

                         right. The metric system.

                              (he points to a fast

                              food drink cup)

                         What’s in this?

                                     BRETT

                         Sprite.

                                     JULES

                         Sprite, good, mind if I have some of

                         your tasty beverage to wash this

                         down with?

                                     BRETT

                         Sure.

               Jules grabs the cup and takes a sip.

                                     JULES

                         Uuuuummmm, hit’s the spot!

                              (to Roger)

                         You, Flock of Seagulls, you know

                         what we’re here for?

               Roger nods his head: “Yes.”

                                     JULES

                         Then why don’t you tell my boy here

                         Vince, where you got the shit hid.

                                     MARVIN

                         It’s under the be –

                                    JULES

                         – I don’t remember askin’ you a

                         goddamn thing.

                              (to Roger)

                         You were sayin’?

 

Jules is scary even on the page; he swings from calm burger gourmet to dangerous aggressor and back again in two sentences. Everyone is caught off-guard, which is great for story-telling tension. Why does Tarantino write this dialogue? Why doesn’t he just have Vincent and Jules come in, blow the boys away and search for the drugs? We all know; Vince, Jules, the unfortunate college kids, and us the audience, we all know this isn’t going to end well and the everyday subject of the dialogue draws out the moment until all hell breaks loose.

Tarantino Pulp Fiction

“Uuummmm, that’s a tasty burger.”

Looking to the dialogue of film-makers, directors and producers and analysing what they have written, why they have written it and the effect it has on the audience, can help revitalise a novelists approach.

And let’s not forget comic/graphic novel writers. They have to get that dialogue to lift off the page as much as the artwork. They often bring controversial ideas to the page, dialogue that can be poetic, or both as is the case with Alan Moore’s,  V For Vendetta.

v for vendetta

V: Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.

In this scene where V introduces himself to Evey, we learn a lot about V – he is poetic, an actor, misunderstood and a freedom fighter, all V’s dialogue.

The comic book writer is a subversive creature, lurking in the darkening corners of publishing houses and saying the things we wish we had said ourselves. Frank Miller takes us into the dark with the likes of Sin City and Batman: The dark Knight Returns. Other comic book writers with snappy dialogue are the ‘cast’ of 2000AD writers, including John Wagner, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, Garth Ennis; some of the writers for Judge Dredd;

Chief Judge: Sink or swim. Chuck her in the deep end.
Dredd: It’s ALL the deep end.

Even without any images, we know that Dredd is a hard-nosed, Lawful, humourless son-of-a-bitch, and he kicks criminal ass big time. Forget what you may have heard about kids and comics, if you have never read one, go and buy one or two and read them  and study that dialogue.

2000ad-is-the-black-mirror-of-british-comics-body-image-1449762931-size_1000

Some quick tips –

  • INSTEAD OF SAID. I know, it’s a bitch isn’t it? You have a section of long-running dialogue and you get tired of writing he said, she said. Find an alternative to express their tone, emotions and attitude. A helpful site I like to use is – Over 200 Words to use Instead of Said – http://www.spwickstrom.com/said/#demurred
  • LISTEN to how people speak to each other in real life – BUT – do not copy it, because in real life, we um and ah, and er and pause and repeat and so on and so on… put yourself in the head of your character, BE the serial killer with a penchant for growing prize-winning roses, BE the put upon clerk who adores his/her boss regardless of how they’re treated.
  • “MORNING DORIS.” “Hi Doris.” “Yo bitch!” Use colloquialisms to tell the reader about the relationship between characters. After all, you do not all speak the same as each other, the way you speak to your mother is quite different from how you chat with your friends/homies/home girls/pals.
  • SPEAK UP. Read your dialogue out loud (you should do this with all your work anyway, you can hear the mistakes!) Act the parts of your protagonists; does it sound ‘real’?
  • RESEARCH – especially if your setting is alien to you, or historical. In the 17th century, Doris’ neighbour would never have said “Yo bitch!” or even “Hi, Doris.” More like, “Good morning to you Mistress Doris.” Keep it real – for the world you’re writing for.
  • KEEP A NOTEBOOK to hand, ALWAYS. Listen to people talking at bus stops, on trains, at work/school. You can pick up some juicy titbits. I once heard someone say of Alan Bennet (British playwright, screenwriter, author), that he noted down what a fellow actor said, then had her repeat it in his plays. Sounds true, possibly is, but he did not regurgitate directly what she said, he adapted it for the viewing audience so that we came to know the character.
  • KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. Would our lovely Doris really say “I don’t give a crap about waitresses!”?  You don’t need to, but you might want to write biographies for your characters, it will help you to determine, not only where they come from and what accents they have, but also how they speak; their specific word choices such as slang, speech patterns, and rhythms.

 

Authors who I think give good dialogue!

Douglas Adams

The author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series marries the fantastical with the prosaic –

‘Drink up,’ said Ford, ‘you’ve got three pints to get through.’

‘Three pints?” said Arthur. ‘At lunchtime?’ 

The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’

‘Very deep,’ said Arthur, ‘you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.’

‘Drink up.’

 

Elmore Leonard

The crime novelist’s dialogue is catchy and snappy, many of his novels have been made into films – Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and  3:10 to Yuma

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

John Steinbeck

Worlds peopled with memorable characters with dialogue that a reader can hear it as if spoken aloud.

‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’

‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

Hope you enjoyed today’s post. Now go and write some wonderful dialogue people!

“Oh yes, I’m the great Procrastinator.”

I was going to write about how English words mean something else in other languages – like ‘kiss’ in Swedish means ‘pee’. But I went and did some laundry instead.

Then, I was going to write about the current political climate re- America and Syria. But I went and had a cigarette instead.

I thought about writing about how words in the English language have changed their meaning – did you know ‘nice’ originally meant the opposite of today’s meaning. But I ended up reading and replying to e-mails.

You see, I’m a procrastinator, of the first order!

It isn’t that I don’t have an idea, I have plenty of ideas, I write little notes everywhere, my dining room is an homage to Post-It notes and notebooks. I will wander about the house looking for something to do, or I spend an hour (or two or three!) on the Playstation. or suddenly, there is a huge amount of laundry to be done! I have always been like this; seemingly directionless, a self-accused lazy person.

However, I have since realized that this is not the negative non-activity I first believed it to be. I watched a TED talk given by Tim Urban, in which he explains, with amusing visuals, what a dire procrastinator he was/is;      https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator

and recognised many elements within myself. I also discovered that I belong to a, pretty awesome, group of individuals who are cast as procrastinators.

Victor Hugo – French writer Victor Hugo was apparently familiar with the muse of procrastination; preferring to do any and everything rather than focusing on his work. So how, I hear you ask, did he get busy again?  Well apparently, he would strip naked, have his servant take away his clothes and lock him in his study until he resumed work! Well, at least he wasn’t distracted by doing the laundry!

victor-hugo-9346557-1-402

“It may look to the untrained eye [like]I’m sitting on my arse all day” (I Spy, PULP)

 

Saint Augustine – Who’d have thunk it! A saint! (I feel so much holier than thou now) Apparently, Augustine was dreadful at getting things done and could relapse into bouts of distraction at the drop of a hat.  He struggled to maintain his pious status all of the time and often relapsed into sin. His desire for sex often led him astray and over the years he forgot his holy path on more than one occasion. I know how he feels!!

st-augustine-3

“Dum de dum, people watching, so I’ll pretend to write..tum te tum…”

 

Leonardo Da Vinci –  Da Vinci completed some of the most famous works of art ever to have been created, but it turns out that he was not very focused.  Mona Lisa took 16 years to complete! Da Vinci was so renowned for his procrastination that one benefactor had to threaten him with bankruptcy to get him to finish a commissioned piece.Many of Da Vinci’s works remain unfinished.

da-vinci-alam_159842t

You think you grow a beard like this without procrastinating?!

 

Margaret Atwood – Margaret Atwood apparently suffers from serious bouts of procrastination. She has had 14 novels, 9 short stories and 16 poetry books published, but, according to the author herself, her success is down to allowing herself to procrastinate for a few hours in the morning, and by the time she sits down to work mid-afternoon, she is finally able to focus.

atwood

The evil genius that is the procrastinator, mwah-ha-ha!

 

Douglas Adams –  was as legendary for his procrastination as he was for his one-liners. “I love deadlines,” he once quipped. “I like the whooshing sound they make when they go by.” According to his friend, Steve Meretzky, “Douglas has raised procrastination to an art form. Hitchhikers Guide would never have gotten done if I hadn’t gone over to England and virtually camped out on his doorstep.” Adams struggled mightily with the writing of his final novel, The Salmon of Doubt, and would soak for hours in a bathtub instead of getting on with it. He had been working on it for ten years and still hadn’t completed a first draft when he died of a heart attack in 2001. The fragments were published posthumously, but they are far from forming a coherent novel.

douglasadams

42? Whatever!

 

The Dalai Lama – A great spiritual leader who travels the world teaching about compassion as the source of happiness in life. But before Dalai-hood, he was a student who found it hard to get motivated. “Only in the face of a difficult challenge or an urgent deadline would I study and work without laziness,”. And now?  “You must not procrastinate,” he now teaches. “Rather you should make preparations so that even if you die tonight, you would have no regrets.”

Dalai Lama

Ha ha ha ha! You fools who work non-stop!

 

The Dalai Lama! I know! (he went and ruined it at the end when he talked about making preparations though.)

So, if you feel the guilt of the procrastinator, fear not, you’re we’re in good company. So forward procrastinators of the world! Let us hold our heads high, unfurl the banner without sigil and sound the horn and feel proud of what we are! We are (not quite) mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore – 1st Meeting of The Procrastinators – meet at the park next Friday at 7 pm – if you can be bothered – or maybe you have some laundry to do? We could postpone it until next month…

 

Dashie XP procrastinates good style – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13y7IVYoRS8 

dashiexp

 

 

 

 

 

N.B: there is swearing in the above video, so if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing…well, what can I say?!

 

P.S: I will be starting a series of interviews in the coming weeks; keep a lookout! And if there are any creative types out there who wish to be included, just drop me a line. Ta ta for now.