“Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.” John Wayne
I love writing dialogue. It’s my way of delivering those zingers I can’t come up with quick enough in real life or don’t dare utter even if I do. You know the lines I mean. The great lines that come to you when you’re in deep point of view, the ones that have your fist pumping in the air because you’ve nailed it. You’ve written it exactly the way the character would have thought it.
“I’m not your white picket fence type of guy and I have no plans to stay. But I’m walking a fine line here, Lily. Between doing what I know is right and taking what I want. So give the femme fatale act a rest.”
The above is one of my fist pumping lines. It pretty much sums up my hero, Chase Porter, from my work-in-progress, Common Ground. Torn between honor and instinct.
One of the purposes of dialogue is to move the story forward. It can also give the reader a hint about the character’s attitudes, their beliefs and values, their slant on the situation. Each character in a conversation will have a purpose for being there and will have something specific they want to accomplish within the conversation.
Aside from your ‘voice’ as a writer, each character needs to have their own distinct ‘voice’, their own style of speech, with their own rhythm. My hero in Common Ground is a potty mouth. The heroine, on the other hand, never swears, not even under extreme circumstances. In my other work-in-progress, Complicated, the hero is young, cocky, and a charmer. Too bad for him the heroine’s heard it all before, more than once. And she’s not shy about letting him know it. She could ice over Niagara Falls with her putdowns.
Great dialogue contains great tension.
“You tell ‘em I’m coming and Hell’s coming with me, you hear.” Wyatt Earp played by Kurt Russell in the movie Tombstone.
And with that line we all know what’s coming is gonna be bad, by anyone’s standards.
In most instances, fictional dialogue does not require mundane, polite, everyday discussions about the weather or banal dinner conversation involving the request of the saltshaker. Unless the requesting of the saltshaker means something else entirely. Lots of times it’s all about what’s happening below the surface. It’s about how it’s said versus what is being said.
“I’m here, and you guys need to get busy tracking Jason and the Brotherhood. I’ll make sure she gets home safe.”
But Chase isn’t saying it to be friendly or helpful. What he feels and what he means is: “You’re taking Lily home over my dead or dying body.” And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say a lot of the dialogue revolves around what’s not being said. Great dialogue allows the reader to read between the lines.
Dialogue is also an excellent way to drop bits of backstory.
“Don’t take my word for it. Ask around. Ask the old timers. I bet they remember my dad, and what a mean drunk he could be.”
I don’t need to go into graphic detail about Chase’s past but I do need the reader to be aware of it, so I drop a few hints throughout and let the reader draw their own conclusion.
For inspiration on creating great lines, I keep a notebook and pen handy when I’m watching TV. I try and remember to jot down my favorite lines. I also write them down on post it notes and stick them to my character board, or tuck them into the relevant work-in-progress binder. Anytime I think of something any character might say I write it down. My NaNoWriMo project reads like a bunch of talking heads.
Here are a few examples from my ‘television’ notebook:
From The Closer: “Let me rephrase that rhetorical question.” I love Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, and I thought this line was hysterical.
From NCIS LA: “Sam sees the glass as half full; I see it as half empty; Kenzie drinks straight out of the bottle; Nate needs to know why it needs to be glass; and Eric breaks the glass when he puts his feet up on the table.” I loved this line and I loved how it summed up everyone on the team.
And just because I love the Duke.
“Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. That’s the second time you hit me. Don’t ever do it again.” John T. Chance played by John Wayne in Rio Bravo.
Do you love writing dialogue? Do you have a favorite movie line? Some dialogue from a work-in-progress you want to share? An author you believe writes riveting dialogue?