Sunday, April 17, 2011
James Scott Bell
A short lesson today in the art of dialogue.
Here are the opening lines from an old Perry Mason show, circa 1958. A couple is in their compartment on a train:
I still wish I were going to Mexico with you instead of staying here in Los Angeles.
This trip's going to be too dangerous, Harriet. It's some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra Madre mountains. It's no place for a woman, especially my wife. It's almost no place for an amateur archaeologist, either. Thanks for coming with me as far as Cole Grove station.
You see what's happening? It's an example of the writers shooting information to the viewers through expository dialogue. In fairness to the writers, that was done all the time in those old days of television.
But it's death to dialogue if you do it in your fiction.
Dialogue has to sound like it's coming from one character to another, in a way that both fits the character and the moment.
The first thing to look out for is a character saying anything that both the characters already know.
In the above example, they both know they live in Los Angeles. They both know she's his wife. They both know he's an amateur archaeologist. They both know he's going into the Sierra Madre mountains. And they both know they're going as far as Cole Grove station.
Again, we understand why it was done within the confines of a one hour TV drama from the 50s. But you're writing a book, so don't you do it.
I'm at a conference this weekend, mentoring some students. One of them turned in a manuscript with the following (used by permission). A woman (Betty) has been planting bombs to avenge the death of her son. She now has a forensic investigator (Kate, who has been closing in on her) tied up, and is threatening to kill her:
Betty looked down at Kate. The triumphant smile on her face faded into a snarl at the mention of her son’s death. “Why do you care?”
“Because if my son had died as a result of finding out about something terrible that had happened to him that I had kept hidden to protect him, I would want to blame the person responsible.” Kate thought she would try the empathy tactic. She did feel a great sorrow for Betty and her tragic story. She watched as Betty returned her statement with a hard stare.
Here in this tense moment, Kate has revealed to Betty facts about the case, but dialogue sounds unnatural. The long line has information stuffed into it, but it feels more like it's for the reader's benefit rather than the character's.
I told the student to go back and cut all dialogue that is not absolutely true to the character and the emotional beats. What would either of them really say?
Dialogue is a tool like any other in the craft. Also, dialogue is the fastest way to improve your manuscript––or sink it. If you do it well, it creates in the reader a subliminal confidence in you. They trust you as a storyteller.
If you don't do it well, confidence flies out the window.
Great dialogue keeps readers in the fictive dream. So never have a woman answer the door and say, "Oh, hello Arthur, my family doctor from Baltimore. Come in."
You know great dialogue when you read it. Who are some of your favorite masters of this aspect of the craft?
*The above photo, BTW, is from the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday, which has some of the best dialogue ever recorded on film. Check it out.