Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blog Chain: I Like the Sound of My Own Voice

Yay for the blog chain. It's another week and another fantastic question :)

This week's question was posed by the chatty Kate:

Do you enjoy writing dialogue? Do you use a lot of dialogue in your writing (for our purposes "a lot" will be defined as more than a smidge and yet not so much that the quotes key on your computer is completely worn out.)? Do you have example(s) of dialogue you especially enjoyed from something you've read? Do you have example(s) of dialogue from your own writing? What about these examples makes them special?

I'm a huge fan of dialog.  I love sitting in strange places (like mall food courts) and listening to people talk to each other.  People reveal so much of themselves through what they say.  And I like to use dialog to reveal a lot about my characters.

So I guess the answer to the question is that, yes, I use tons of dialog in my writing.

I'm not near my books right now so I'll point to Joss Whedon as my dialog hero.  Yes, yes, I know that he writes TV and movies, but his dialog is some of the freshest, and most revealing out there.  In his recent show, Dollhouse, Topher was one of my favorite characters.  He managed to be both creepy and genius and childlike.  The following is an exchange between himself and the doctor.  The concept is that the "dolls" in their blank state have no desires, emotions, anything of their own.  Only Topher has just witnessed one of the dolls having quite a reaction.

Claire: Topher?

Topher: Hello.

Claire: Hello.

Topher: So listen. Here’s the thing. I was looking, glancing… I noticed… Victor.

[He holds his arms and hands out in a hopefully indicative manner]

Claire: You noticed Victor.

[Claire puts the book back on the shelf]

Topher: Mm-hmm. In the shower, and he’s… naked.

Claire: Victor’s naked in the shower.

Topher: Right. Anyway, he seemed to be having a kind of… man reaction.

Claire: A what?

Topher: A, you know, reaction that a man person might have in the… you know, the… naked part. Shower. Victor.

Claire: Victor had an erection?

[He takes in a quick, sharp breath, making a pointing motion in her direction]

Topher: I prefer man reaction.

Claire: Why?

[He shrugs]

Topher: This is a problem. This can’t happen. It shouldn’t happen.

[Claire goes to a shelf full of large files]

Topher: When they’re in their Doll state, there’s a limp… ness.

[She grabs a file off of it]

Claire: Well, I warned about something like this.
Without knowing anything about either character you can already tell that Claire is a no-nonsense type of woman while Topher can't even say the word "erection."  He can, however, make third-grade jokes about it.  But beyond that, there's a uniqueness to each person.  Even without the actors to speak the words, I could read a script with the names blotted out and know which lines belonged to whom.  Great dialog is something that reveals a character and is something only that character could say.

I recently finished a story for which dialog was key.  The main narrator spoke little about himself and narrated sparely (for me anyway).  Most everything learned about him and the people around him was learned through dialog.  Here's an example of that:

"She's gone."
            "You were kind of mean to her," I say. 
            "You don't know what they do to me."
            "I'm sure they're doing what's best."
            "Can you drop it?"  His voice has the hard edge of finality. 
            "Sure.  What do you want to talk about then?"
            "I don't know." 
            "So are you from around here?"
            "That's all you got?" asks Rusty.  "You're a terrible date."
            "This is a date?"
            "No, I'm not like that.  I'm not one of those kind."  Rusty's voice shakes.
            "The kind of people who date?"
            "A fag.  I'm not a fag."
            "Oh," I say.  "Yeah, me neither."
            "Anyway.  I go to Neptune Prep.  What school do you go to?"
            "I got my GED."
            "No you didn't."  Rusty says it with absolute certainty. 
            "No.  I guess I didn't."  I shift my position on the floor from my left butt cheek to my right.  "I moved here not long ago.  I'm enrolled in Neptune Prep for my junior year."
            "Maybe we'll be in the same homeroom."  Rusty sounds happy for the first time tonight.  Hopeful.  "Where'd you live before this?"
            "Rhode Island.  Providence."
            "You grow up there? You don't sound like it.  I got an uncle who moved to Boston and he says all New Englanders sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown."
            "That's just where I lived before here.  I didn't grow up there.  I grew up here.  We moved when I was eight.  Now we're back."
            "Oh. Cool."
            The conversation dies again and I don't know where to pick it up.  Part of me wants to break Rusty in two and the other part wants to cuddle.
            "So how come you're always here?"
            "My grandmother's here," I say.  "She's down on the third floor in a coma."
            "Yeah, but visiting hours are over.  They've been over for a long time.  But you're still here."
            I shrug even though he can't see it.  "You asked me for a book."
            "What about the night before?"
            "I wanted to see if the music helped?"
            "And the night before that?"
            "You ask a lot of damn questions for someone who hates answering them."  I look up and Rusty's leaning over as far as he can to look back at me. 
            "I don't really hate fags, you know."
            "Why should I care?"
            "Just thought you should know."
            "And now I do."
            Every time I feel like I'm beginning to make a connection with Rusty, it dies, like the ember of a fire.  I fan it, blow on it, cup it with my hand, but I can't make it catch. 
            "I guess I should go," I say.
            "I wish you wouldn't."
            "I'll be in a lot of trouble if I get caught."
            "I don't want you to go."
            The fingers of his burned left hand touch the side of my head.  I look up and see him looking down again.  Pain wrinkles his brow and lips and his cool eyes are awash in nausea.  This small movement is agony for him.
            "A few minutes longer," I say

This is part of one scene.  My MC Drew snuck up to the room of a young man who was burned.  It's the middle of the night and they're trying to get to know each other, but it's not going well.  For me, I really loved the back and forth nature.  It's like ping-pong.  Except it keeps hitting this dead end and forcing them to start all over again.  I tried to make sure all the character development was in their words.

Sometimes when I'm really having a difficult time with a scene, I'll just write dialog.  Then later go back and fill in the details.  The things people do can definitely tells us a lot about them, but I think it's the things that say that really give them away.

So, awesome topic Kate!  Go ahead and check out the loquacious Michelle who answered before me and the highly verbose Cole who will answer it tomorrow! 


  1. Wow. I really liked the way you pulled this off. And I like your suggestion to just write dialogue sometimes--your insight is pretty deep. Thanks for sharing!

  2. LOVE this post Shaun! and man, I thought I was the only one eaves-dropping at the mall!!!

  3. Oooh, spit-fire dialogue is my absolute favorite. I have to say, after reading your snippet, I'm definitely hooked!

    And are you as crushed as I am about another Joss Whedon cancelling? Grr!

  4. Sorry this dropped early. Blogger scheduler fail :(

  5. I really enjoyed reading the dialogue--that back and forth-ness of it was really well executed and you do learn so much about these characters. Like you, sometimes I write dialogue only if I'm stuck, but if I'm really stuck my characters just stare and gawk at each other--and I get no words out. LOL

  6. And here I thought I was the one confused. Glad to know it was blogger messing up.

    I like the excerpts you use, particularly yours. When I first started reading it, I wasn't sure I liked it. I mean, I don't often see that kind of back and forth. But by the end I could tell alot about the characters. It is really well written and an interesting tool. Nice job.

  7. You met the goals you set for your scene: the back-and-forth exchange adds to the tension while we learn more about the characters. Nice job!

  8. I love the back and forth as well - very nice! And seriously laughing my head off over the "man reaction" LOL

  9. Love the Dollhouse example - that was one of my favorite Topher scenes, although the very best one was when Victor was imprinted with Topher so that Topher could talk to himself.

    I also really enjoyed the scene from your own writing. It takes a lot of confidence I think to just let the dialogue speak for itself without a bunch of dialogue tags - I usually can't go that long without putting a lot of he said/she said's in, and that is something that I definitely need to work on.

  10. Awesome excerpts, Shaun. I really liked the ping-pong effect. And now I'll never forget the words "man reaction."

    I'm a Whedon fan as well. I was pretty bummed out when they canceled Firefly.

  11. Wonderful! Your example is written so smoothly, yet I can feel the brick wall your character keeps hitting.

    Love it.

  12. This is a great post! I, too, go to malls and eavesdrop. Dunkin' Donuts is another great place--especially to hear teens. (In my town, anyway).

    I always found your dialogue flowed so naturally and smoothly and was really realistic. It is difficult sometimes to make sure dialogue moves the story forward, rather than just being there sounding too real (like just "hi", "how are you" "what's up", etc. but not revealing anything about characters).

    Great examples!

  13. I love, love, LOVE Joss Whedon! I was SO bummed when Dollhouse was cancelled!

    Your own example was great! I like fast, snappy dialog that ping-pongs back and forth!


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