Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dialogue to Remember

by Anita Mae Draper

You could write the most descriptive story but without dialogue, it’s flatter than a straight line on a sheet of paper. Dialogue sets the tone. It can move the story forward or put the reader to sleep. It should create tension, jump-start hearts and spark tears.

The space between the quotation marks is where you can let your imagination run free. This is where you get to use the bad grammar, fragmented sentences and clichés frowned upon everywhere else. And you do it all under the guise of ‘realism’.

Before you can write dialogue however, you need to define your characters. Realism in dialogue comes from accurately portraying your characters’ speech patterns and character traits. For example, you would never hear…

A duke in a regency say, “Git yer butt outta the chair, pronto.”

A modern teenager say, “Perchance you would like to sit elsewhere?”

An 1870 cowboy say, “That chair does wonders for your complexion.”

A toddler say, “Please rise and move away from the chair.”

A young mother say, “Of course you can stand on the chair while you eat.”

Develop your characters and use dialogue to show us another facet of their personality. Pepper their words with colloquialisms to lend authenticity. Drop syllables like ‘h’s to show dialects. Avoid contractions to invoke an aura of aristocracy, wealth and breeding.

Dialogue can turn a B-rated movie into a classic. It can turn a TV show with unknown actors into a seasonal success. And it can turn a high budget movie into a box office flop. In the end, it’s the quality of writing which usually determines how long a show will run. The plot, actors and setting can all change and may or may not have an effect on the show. But if the quality of writing drops, viewers will switch channels faster than it takes to think about why they’re doing it.

Sometimes a person won’t even remember the TV show or movie, but they’ll remember the dialogue and the scene:

- In Gone with the Wind (1939), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) has had it with Scarlett O’Hara. He knew she was a spoiled brat but he’s just realized she’ll never change. She’s pushed him too far and he just doesn’t care any longer. He goes to leave but at the door, he stops, turns and says, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”

- In Sudden Impact (1983), Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) interrupts a robbery in progress. The bad guy takes a woman hostage and holds a gun to her head. Cool and calm, Harry cocks his pistol and points it at the abductor while saying, "Go ahead. Make my day." Here's the actual 4 minute scene:

- In The Terminator (1984), Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg who can't get an answer and says, “I’ll be Back.” He goes out, gets his vehicle, and drives back into the building. Literally. This one line was so successful for Mr. Schwarzenegger that they wrote it into the sequel, Terminator 2 (1991).

- Remember the Deli scene in When Harry Met Sally (1989)? The scene itself is memorable but it’s the well dressed woman sitting across from Sally who makes the scene classic when she says to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

- And what about little Carol Anne in Poltergeist (1982)? Everyone is sleeping in the parents’ bed and Carol Anne awakes and goes over to the TV. Things start shooting out of it and when everything settles down, she looks at her parents and in her little girl’s voice sing-song’s “They’re hee-ere.”

- In Always (1989)fire-fighting pilot Al Yackey (John Goodman) is flying low over a forest fire when his plane catches fire. He looks at his instruments, realizes he’s in a life and death situation and says, “My engine’s on fire. Can you believe it? And I was in such a good mood.” I couldn't find the scene alone but it's included on this Always trailer.

Granted, each of the above dialogue lines is special because of the way the actor delivered it. However, the author had to write the inspiring words and attribute them to a character in the first place.

Wikipedia says “In the novel Gone with the Wind, Rhett does not say "Frankly," but simply "My dear, I don't give a damn." The context is also different; he is speaking quietly to Scarlett in a room, not storming dramatically out of the house.” I don’t have a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s book so I can’t confirm the Wikipedia entry. But even if it’s true, the words are still the author’s and were said by the character she created—Rhett Butler.

Which brings me back to where I started... you need to write dialogue which reflects the unique qualities of your characters. You don’t need big fifty dollar words unless your character is a college professor and needs to say them. The above examples all use simple, common words. Every line needs to be effective to move the story forward. And you have to present it in the time and place it’ll have the most impact.

I'll leave you with these simple words of farewell delivered many times over the years by a character who refused to acknowledge the emotions of his human side... "Live long and prosper." Mr. Spock, Star Trek

So what’s your favorite line, either in a book, movie or TV show?


j.leigh.bailey said...

In With Honors, Brendan Frasier's character loans his female roommate his razor so she (Moira Kelly) can shave her legs. As he's trying desperately to not watch her he mutters "I've never wanted to be a razor so bad in my life." Love it. :)

I know it doesn't have anything to do with characterization through dialogue (very helpful post, by the way) but I was just thinking this morning that Elizabeth Lowell creates my all-time favorite dialogue--it's quick, clever and awesome.

Vince said...

Hi Anita:

Great post! Dialogue is so important. I love your examples.

Movie dialogue can be tricky because the actors often change it. If you watch the background material on the “Mamma Mia” DVD, you’ll be amazed how many lines the actors changed on the set. They would do it without even telling the director.

I think actors can know their characters better than the author can in many cases. The actor knows how his or her character would say something. The actor is not thinking in terms of the total production but only of his or her character. The author sees the big picture. This is why I think it is a good idea to playact scenes from your WIP. Read the parts and move about as you speak – even if you have to play all the roles yourself. This helps me.

In “Mamma Mia” I loved it when the daughter, Sophie, asks her mother to forgive her for inviting her ‘three possible fathers’ to the wedding. Donna, the mother, says…”I… don’t …know.” Somehow I am sure that was not in the script. That was pure Meryl Streep.


Karyn Good said...

Great post, Anita. I love writing dialogue. There's nothing better than being in deep POV and coming up with 'the' line.

Jennifer Crusie writes great dialogue!

One of my favorite movies is Speed. Howard Payne, played by Dennis Hopper, is out for revenge and is setting off bombs. Officer Jack Traven, played by Keanu Reeves, is trying to stop him.
Here's my favorite lines:

Howard Payne: "There will come a time, boy, when you'll wish you never met me."

Officer Jack Traven: "Mister, I'm already there."

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey j.leigh, I'm not familiar with With Honors but it sounds like a fun movie. For some reason it reminds me of Mel Gibson shaving his legs in What Women Want. Ha!

Elizabeth Lowell? I'll have to check her out. Thanks.

I like your blog, btw. :) Thanks for stopping by.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Vince, sometimes that is true for movies, as in the case of Midnight Cowboy when Dustin Hoffman got ticked off at an onlooker who jumped the set barricade and said, "I'm walking here!" The director liked it so much, he added it to the script.

However, I've also worked on films and TV shows where the script was followed in detail by a script consultant (she had her own chair) and as soon as a line was changed, she'd speak in her headset to the director who would yell, "Cut!" and they'd repeat the scene.

It all depends on the contract between the author and the production company.

And when you write your story, you have no idea if it will be made into a movie or what type of contract you'll need to sign, so the wise thing is to write the best, snappiest dialogue you can think of just in case. :)

Oh - I haven't seen Mama Mia, either.

Actually, I think I've only seen a couple movies from the last few years. :(

Thanks for your input, Vince.


Anita Mae Draper said...

LOL Karyn, yes, that's a good one, too. All sorts of images come to mind at those words.

Thanks for the heads up on Jennifer Cruise. I just checked and she has a fun blog. :)


Silver James said...

I can't remember where I saw it now--blog or writing book--but the author suggested dialogue should comprise about 40% of a scene/book. On an average through my whole book, it might come to that.

Dialogue is a great way to establish your character. In my current WIP, she's smart-mouthed and brusque. He's old-world and scholarly. It's fun to juxtapose their "voice" in a conversation.

Favorite movie dialogue...I have to go with some of the scenes from McLintock (which was a retelling of Taming of the Shrew, btw). John Wayne had some absolutely classic lines in that movie! Oh! And Quiet Man! I love sassy repartee between the heroine and hero!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Silver, 40% is what I've been hearing and reading as well. It's about what I like to use, too. Not on purpose, it just ends up that way.

All I need is someone to say the word, 'Pilgrim' and I think of the Duke.

I vaguely remember the double spanking scene in McLintock. Heh. Good movie.

Thanks Silver.


Jennie Marsland said...

Great post! I once attended a writing workshop where I had to write a story entirely with dialogue - no description of any kind, no dialogue tags allowed. I wrote a conversation between two people who were hard of hearing and kept misunderstanding each other. As far as my favorite movie dialogue, I still crack up at some of the lines from the old Pink Panther movies, like when Clouseau says "How can a blind man be a lookout?" Answer: "How can an idiot be a policeman?!"

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Jennie reminded me of the old Pink Panther movies with Peter Sellers. They were great. He always misprounced words and when someone tried to correct him, he just got it worse. There's also some great dialogue and true craziness in the Monty Python series. One of my favorite skits is called "The Pet Shop" I think. A fellow goes to complain that the parrot he just bought there is dead and the pet shop owner says "he's just resting". To which John Cleese replies with a string of synonyms for "dead": "he's an ex-bird" and "he's an expired parrot". Very funny stuff.

One of my favorite movie lines (well two lines) comes from "Jerry Maguire". Tom Cruise launches into a long speech about how he loves Renee Zellweiger and finishes with "You complete me." To which she replies "You had me at hello."


Anita Mae Draper said...

Oh Jennie, that's funny. It reminds me of 2 things...

One of John Wayne's better known off-screen quotes is "Life is tough, but it's tougher when you're stupid."

And then there's the three elderly women sitting on a bench waiting for the bus and their conversation goes like this:
1st senior: It's windy today.
2nd senior: No, it's not. It's Thursday.
3rd senior: Me too. Forget the bus, let's get a drink.

Getting back to your comment, I wouldn't have a problem writing stictly in dialogue, but it'd take forever to have it make sense. :)

Kudos to you for taking a craft workshop.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Jana, I remember those lines from Jerry Maguire. Very romantic.

Speaking of romance, the animated cat movie, The Aristocats had a good line... a little white kitten is watching the 2 adults cuddle and she sighs and says, It's so romantic.

Yeah, I know, not very powerful, but it stuck with me from the first time I heard it.

You're right about Inspector Clouseau's accent. I would have liked to have seen the script for that film just to see how the original dialogue was written.


DebH said...

my favorite dialogue comes from The Princess Bride - there are actually several scenes that have witty quips. My personal favorite is at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity when Vizini, Fezzik and Indigo see that the Man in Black still clings to the cliff after they've severed the rope.
Vizini: "He's still alive? Inconceivable!"
Indigo: "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means."

Very neat post Anita. Dialogue is my favorite part of most of my favorite books. Personally, the more quirky or clever it is, the more I enjoy it.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Deb, The Princess Bride sounds like another good one. It reminds me of a girl I used to work with who was from Quebec so her English had a very French accent. We were talking one day and I told her the Sgt's wife was deceased. She leaned over and whispered, "What does she have?"
LOL I finally had to write down the words to show her the difference between deceased and diseased.

Quirky and clever is what makes the dialogue and the story memorable. If I remember correctly, that's one of your strong points. Can't wait to read more. :)


Anita Mae Draper said...

I've been waiting all day for Hayley to comment but not sure if she's around so I'll say this before I forget...

Your flash fiction piece, Fool's Fire didn't have any dialogue but you wrote lines like this... 'He’s whistling now, and my head snaps about. I see him. Oh, my darling, look my way! Come to me!'
I don't know if you scared me with your story or not, but I keep thinking about it. And those lines might be internal thoughts, but they're as good as dialogue and brought your piece to life. Added that touch of realism that I keep thinking about. *shudder

Excellent writing.


Molli said...

Hi Anita. Good post, and some excellent, classic examples.

When you asked about favourite lines I thought of two, one a well-known classic, the other perhaps lesser known but more and more relevant the longer I shuffle around on this stage.

From Casablanca (and I don't know of anyone who could deliver it more memorably than Bogie): Here's looking at you, kid.

From Will Rogers (and I'm paraphrasing): When you get old everything either dries up or leaks.

Does the line itself characterize? Not always, but it should always be in character. Sometimes a line takes on a life of its own, and sometimes life is breathed into it by virtue of the delivery. But as you say, it's up to us to "write the inspiring words" because Bogie isn't reading our book to the readers.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Good point, Molli.

And of all the lines in Casablanca, I like that one best. :)

That was a pretty good paraphrasing because the actual Will Rogers quote is 'You know you are getting old when every thing either dries up or leaks.'

Thanks Molli.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, belatedly catching up on your blog post here. I was out and about until 2am that day, no wonder I missed your comment!

Thank you, it's really lovely to hear that a bit of the story has been resonating with you. If it creeped you out, I'd apologize, except that's awesome to hear :)

Some of my favourite lines of dialogue come from Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (also adapted as an animated film in the 80s, so the film quotes stay with me stronger, it seems).

"Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name."

"There are no happy endings, because nothing ends."

"She will remember your heart when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits."

"There is no immortality but a tree's love."

I could probably go on, the longer I think about it. I'll just second the mention of excellent dialogue in The Princess Bride.