Story Craft Class Notes

DIALOGUE: MAKING IT FLOW

quentin tarantino

quentin tarantino

Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.
— Alfred Hitchcock

TWO EXAMPLES: WHICH IS WORSE?

VERSION ONE

“I just can’t take it anymore, John,” she said, hurt.

“You can’t take it?” he asked. “How do you think I feel?”

She laughed, though inside she was about to cry. “You’ve been having an affair for two years. Why?” she asked.

“Why?” he said defiantly. “Why, why, why? Why are you always asking me why?”

“Can’t you see this isn’t about you?” she cried. 

“It’s not?” he said boldly.

“I don’t understand,” she said nervously.

“Look at these,” he said. “These pictures here in my hand. The ones Bobby Martin took of you at the company Christmas party.”

“You were spying on me!” she shouted angrily. “I don’t want to look.” 

“You were kissing Fred Finkster!” he shouted back.

“On the cheek!” she shouted again. 

“That’s because I didn’t show you this one!” he shouted one last time.

“Let me see that,” she said, curious. “No,” she said, stopping and sniffling. “That is Fred, you’re right.”

“You see, you lying minx!” he smiled proudly.

“But that isn’t me,” she said with enjoyment. “That’s Rita from accounting, your girlfriend of two years, lover boy. Now I’m going to take a picture of you.”

She got out her cellphone and took a picture of him.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, perplexed.

“We’re going to court and you’re going to lose half, John. I want a picture of that.”


VERSION 2

“I just can’t take it anymore.” She didn’t want to look at him but she couldn’t help it either. Is this what two years of lies looked like? “Why?” she said.

He was watching her back. Something wasn’t right. He never looked at her when he lied. “Why?” he said. “Why, why, why are you always asking why? Did it ever occur to you to think about my feelings?” 

“Your feelings?” She almost laughed. “It’s always about you, isn’t it?”

“It is?”

Her eyes dropped to the carpet. 

He handed her an envelope. “Come on, take a look, baby. Bobby Martin took them at the company Christmas party.”

She looked at the first two photographs, then put them back in the envelope.

“What?” she said.

“You’re kissing Fred Finkster. That’s what.”

“On the cheek.”

“Right, on the cheek.” He took the envelope from her and pulled out the very last photograph. He was smiling, not as if two years of trust had just gone down the drain, but like a little boy who’d solved a math problem, and not a particularly challenging one.

A tiredness came into her eyes and she said, “You’re right, John, that is Fred. It just isn’t me.”

He grabbed the photo out of her hands and looked closely.

“That’s Rita from accounting,” she said. “Your girlfriend.”

“What are your talking about?”

“John?” 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” 

She came up to him, kissed him on the cheek. She picked her cellphone up off the dresser. She focused and snapped.

“What the hell are you doing?” he said.

“Taking a picture of a man that’s worth half of what he was worth yesterday. You’ll hear from my lawyer tomorrow.” She stuck the phone back in her pocket and left.


SIDE BY SIDE

VERSION ONE

“I just can’t take it anymore, John,” she said, hurt.

“You can’t take it?” he asked. “How do you think I feel?”

She laughed, though inside she was about to cry. “You’ve been having an affair for two years. Why?” she asked.

“Why?” he said defiantly. “Why, why, why? Why are you always asking me why?”
 


“Can’t you see this isn’t about you?” she cried. 

“It’s not?” he said boldly.

“I don’t understand,” she said nervously.

“Look at these,” he said. “These pictures here in my hand. The ones Bobby Martin took of you at the company Christmas party.”

“You were spying on me!” she shouted angrily. “I don’t want to look.” 

“You were kissing Fred Finkster!” he shouted back.

“On the cheek!” she shouted again. 

“That’s because I didn’t show you this one!” he shouted one last time.

“Let me see that,” she said, curious. “No,” she said, stopping and sniffling. “That is Fred, you’re right.”

“You see, you lying minx!” he smiled proudly.
 

VERSION 2

“I just can’t take it anymore.” She didn’t want to look at him but she couldn’t help it either. Is this what two years of lies looked like? “Why?” she said.


He was watching her back. Something wasn’t right. He never looked at her when he lied. “Why?” he said. “Why, why, why are you always asking why? Did it ever occur to you to think about my feelings?” 

 


“Your feelings?” She almost laughed. “It’s always about you, isn’t it?”

“It is?”

Her eyes dropped to the carpet. 

He handed her an envelope. “Come on, take a look, baby. Bobby Martin took them at the company Christmas party.”

She looked at the first two photographs, then put them back in the envelope.

“What?” she said. (What is conveyed here silently, rather than shouting?)

“You’re kissing Fred Finkster. That’s what.”

“On the cheek.”

“Right, on the cheek.” He took the envelope from her and pulled out the very last photograph. He was smiling, not as if two years of trust had just gone down the drain, but like a little boy who’d solved a math problem, and not a particularly challenging one.
 


“But that isn’t me,” she said with enjoyment. “That’s Rita from accounting, your girlfriend of two years, lover boy. Now I’m going to take a picture of you.”

She got out her cellphone and took a picture of him.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, perplexed.

“We’re going to court and you’re going to lose half, John. I want a picture of that.”


A tiredness came into her eyes and she said, “You’re right, John, that is Fred. It just isn’t me.”

He grabbed the photo out of her hands and looked closely.

“That’s Rita from accounting,” she said. “Your girlfriend.”

“What are your talking about?”

“John?” 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” (180 Degree Rule)

She came up to him, kissed him on the cheek. She picked her cellphone up off the dresser. She focused and snapped.

“What the hell are you doing?” he said.

“Taking a picture of a man that’s worth half of what he was worth yesterday. You’ll hear from my lawyer tomorrow.” She stuck the phone back in her pocket and left.


    SOME GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR WRITING DIALOGUE (OR SHOW DON'T TELL CONTINUED)

    • Pay attention to showing, not telling (or cueing not directing). We saw some examples of showing and telling in the excerpts.

    A working example:

    Final version

    The sheriff had a good look at his fat deputy sweating in the air conditioning, at the scrambled egg nesting in Creed’s two-day stubble, the greasy fingerprints on the shirt pocket.

    “Sheriff, I just wanted to say how sorry I am to see you going,” Creed said.

    “Shut the fuck up, Billy. You arranged this whole thing, didn’t you, you dumb shit?”

    “Well, no, sir. I only suggested it to Mac Sheedy as the best solution to a pretty difficult situation."

    “I’d sure like to know what situation you mean,” the sheriff said.

    “You mind if I sit?"

    “I do.”

    ORIGINAL VERSION

    The sheriff had a good look at his fat deputy sweating in the air conditioning, at the scrambled egg nesting in Creed’s two-day stubble, the greasy fingerprints on the shirt pocket.

    “Sheriff, I just wanted to say how sorry I am to see you going,” Creed said.

    “Shut the fuck up, Billy. You arranged this whole thing, didn’t you, you dumb shit?”

    The sheriff's words looked to have wounded Creed.

    “Well, no, sir. I only suggested it to Mac Sheedy as the best solution to a pretty difficult situation."

    “I’d sure like to know what situation you mean,” the sheriff said.

    “You mind if I sit?"

    “I do.”

    Reason I cut them? Because the dialogue itself conveyed enough.

    • On the other hand, avoid conveying too much through dialogue alone. Internal monologue, description, and even action can often show what a character is feeling better than dialogue.

      “Look at these,” he said. “These pictures here in my hand. The ones Bobby Martin took of you at the company Christmas party.”
       
    • Ditch the adverbs. Use action verbs and your own descriptions (voice) to get those nuances across.
       
    • Notice the many "he said/she saids" in the first piece and the relatively few in the second. You don’t always need them. In fact, the less, the better. Writing good dialogue without the cues is the equivalent of a director observing the 180 Degree Rule. If you do it right, we know who's talking without you telling us.

    TWO EXAMPLES FROM MOVIES 

    A example of how body language, not dialogue, conveys tension. In other words, what is happening in this scene is happening in between the lines.

    An example of a compelling story that gets rid of dialogue entirely. The take-away? As Hitchcock said, you can convey a lot without dialogue. 


    THE 180-DEGREE RULE

    180 DEGREE RULE

    180 DEGREE RULE

    In movies, directors have an invisible line they don't cross when they're shooting dialogue. When they cross that 180-degree line, it's jarring from a narrative perspective. When the camera moves along one side, on the other hand, our brains fill in the gaps and we follow the flow of conversation. When you're wondering how many "he said/she saids" you need in your dialogue, think of that line. Our brains will always fill in the gaps, up to a point.

    Like a good movie soundtrack, when you don’t notice dialogue it’s usually because it's working. When you notice it—and it isn't a Quentin Tarantino film you're watching—the dialogue usually needs work. 

    Another rule of thumb. When you're editing the dialogue you wrote, play it back in your head. See the conversation happening. Can you imagine someone delivering your dialogue? Can you see someone responding? If the answer's no, you may have just written the literary equivalent of an M. Night Shyamalan script.


    USE DIALOGUE THAT DEVELOPS CHARACTER OR MOVES THE PLOT ALONG.

    (UNLESS YOU'RE QUENTIN TARANTINO OR CHARLES PORTIS)

    "Hi John," Tom says. 
    "How's it going?" John asks back. 
    "Fine," says Tom. "Hold on a sec."
    "Uh, sure, no worries. Take your time," says John.

    Net result? Zilch. Nada. Niente. You may be able to sell your book on Amazon Prime, if it has sex in it, but you have just put the reader to sleep because it isn't giving us brain food, i.e. it isn't developing the character or advancing the plot.


    DON'T BE PREDICTABLE: A QUIZ

    It's a good idea to always look for new ways to say the same things. In fact, a large part of your character is tied up in how they speak, so naturally they'll have their own way of saying things and reacting to the things other people say. In other words, you always need to figure out how your character would say it. 

    Use the character from your latest story to complete the sentences.

    1.  A character is in love with your character and says to him/her: "I love you." What does your character say back?

    2. A female character shares with a friend that her partner / teenage son / boss has been mean to her. She says: "It hurts." Your character says what back? 

    3. Your character helps a person of the opposite sex on the street. That person says: "Well, thanks a lot, Mr. / Mrs. ..." How does your character respond?


    TWO MORE (LITERARY) EXAMPLES

    from The Echo of Neighborly Bones by Daniel Woodrell—

    Boshell hunted a stout stick and thumped the corpse. Thumped the stick enough times to snuff a live man, thumped enough to feel better about the rain and the washed-out ball game, then went home to his wife.

    She said, “Wherever’d you get off to?”

    “Oh, you know. I just can’t get to feelin’ done with the son of a bitch.”

    “In all this rain?”

    “I’m gonna have to move him. He’s goin’ high now the cold snap broke. Someplace further from the fire road.”

    “Well, his wife’s got herself some company today over there, and they been sniffin’ about, lookin’ places.” She pointed across the creek where there was a big metal barn, four penned horses, and a mess of guineas running loose, pecking and gabbling. Four people in raincoats and sagging hats stood near the horses, with their boots on the bottom fence rail and their elbows on the top. “Best wait ‘til they leave.”

    “I’ll try.”


    from Raymond Carver’s masterpiece THE Neighbors—

    He selected a can of fish flavor for the cat, then filled the pitcher and went to water [the plants]. When he returned to the kitchen, the cat was scratching in her box. She looked at him steadily before she turned back to the litter. He opened all the cupboards and examined the canned goods, the cereals, the packaged foods, the cocktail and wine glasses, the china, the pots and pans. He opened the refrigerator. He sniffed some celery, took two bites of cheddar cheese, and chewed on an apple as he walked into the bedroom. The bed seemed enormous, with a fluffy white bedspread draped to the floor. He pulled out a nightstand drawer, found a half-empty package of cigarettes and stuffed them into his pocket. Then he stepped to the closet and was opening it when the knock sounded at the front door.

    He stopped by the bathroom and flushed the toilet on his way.

    “What’s been keeping you?” Arlene said. “You’ve been over here more than an hour.”

    “Have I really?” he said.

    “Yes, you have,” she said.

    “I had to go to the toilet,” he said.

    “You have your own toilet,” she said.

    “I couldn’t wait,” he said.

    That night they made love again. 


    ACTIVITY 1 (20 min):

    Choose one of the prompts and write a dialogue. Focus on the interaction between the characters. After you've written the dialogue and figured out who your main character is, tell us what you learned about your character from the way he/she speaks.

    FOUR SCENARIOS:

    1)    Character has just knocked on his neighbor’s door to complain about a persistent noise problem.

    2)    A character shows his elderly grandmother how to use Facebook.

    3)    Two people just witnessed a horrible accident and are waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

    4)    Character believes the end of the world is coming but can’t get his friend to believe him.

    Go to it!

    Max SheridanComment