Dialogue- “I’m Gonna Eat My Words!”

This past weekend was the NW Houston RWA writing conference. We were lucky enough to have James Scott Bell be our teacher. If you’ve followed Muse Tracks for awhile, you know I wrote a couple of blogs on his teachings before. One of them I wrote just from the first 5 minutes of his workshop! He is an amazing teacher and if you EVER have the chance to hear him, take it.


JSB contends that it is a compression and extension of the action of your story. There should be no filler, no small talk. If it doesn’t advance the plot, reveal something about the character or the theme through what the character says then you should put a big black line through it. It is a tool to spice up your stories, don’t waste it with banal conversations.

Not only should it have specific purpose, it should reflect the personalities of the characters speaking. You wouldn’t have a sweet elderly nun ask where the f*** is the bathroom. Likewise, you wouldn’t have a gang member state that there was a plethora of doilies on the Louis XIV chaise. It just doesn’t work!

He was wonderful at showing examples from movies that illustrated his points. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade who is the “take charge” kind of protagonist confronts the odd little intruder, Joel Cairo. “I’ve got you by the neck, Cairo. You’ve walked in and tied yourself up, plenty strong enough to suit the police, with last night’s killing. Well, now you’ll have to play with me or else.”

Mr. Hammett’s word choice is brilliant. Sam is the alpha and there’s no mistaking that point. Now contrast it to the words used by Cairo who always smelled faintly of gardenias. “I made extensive inquiries about you before taking any action, and was assured that you were far too reasonable to allow other considerations to interfere with profitable business relations.”  No one could confuse the two characters here. Not only did the words reveal things about the plot, the word choice painted a picture of both men.

Pay attention to the vocabulary, expressions, regionalisms, syntax, word order and how they put the sentence together. This is all part of the greater tool called subtext. If your character walks onto the page and says, ” Today I have hunger. Where to go for food?” You could probably conclude that English is not his native tongue and he’s still doing literal translations in his head before speaking. You don’t need a paragraph of prose to tell us that he hasn’t been in this country for a terribly long time.

James Scott Bell also points out that there are three primary roles that people take on. There is the parent, the adult, and the child. If two adults are talking, both are rational, considerate, and conciliatory. Press the snooze button, I’m going to sleep! Where’s the conflict? Where’s the spice? Now make one of your characters assume the child role and one the adult or parent role, you’ve got a lot of potential for clashing.

JSB used the movie The Odd Couple to illustrate this point. Not only did it create conflict, it also created humor. Oscar and Felix alternately took turns playing different roles, but they were rarely both on the same level.  Lethal Weapon was another great example of using changing roles to create friction, drama, and comedy. Danny Glover was obviously the adult, and often the parent, while Mel Gibson was the semi-psychotic child yet both were accomplished police veterans doing their job better than anyone else. The dialogue between the partners was often tense, sometimes poignant, and occasionally confusing, but it kept us glued to our seats.

Our characters have the chance to flood our stories with the secret spice of dialogue. It can truly make or break our novels. Just remember that dialogue in fiction is NOT real life speech. We want to create illusions of reality, but it always has to be compressed and move the tale forward.


12 Responses to Dialogue- “I’m Gonna Eat My Words!”

  1. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Dialogue is so important. I was glad to run across this post that brings it all home.


  2. Thanks for using it on your blog! I’m glad you thought it had enough useful information to share with all of your readers. He was a fascinating teacher!


  3. jeff salter says:

    Great stuff, Stacey. I particularly like the points you made using Sam Spade. I’d never realized it so clearly before.


  4. James Scott Bell is truly a master teacher. I’ve heard the lessons he taught before, but I never understood it with such clarity until I sat in his class. The examples he pulls from modern day film and novels really cemented the ideas he wanted to get across.


  5. Great post, Stacey! Dialogue can make or break a scene, or an entire book. Sometimes, you know it is working as you write it; other times, it takes several attempts to make it come together. You know me…. you want to hear almost perfect dialogue from start to finish, pay attention to the dialogue in CASABLANCA…:)


  6. I know how you love Casablanca! I almost chose an example from that movie- JSB likes it as well. I just thought that the exchange from The Maltese Falcon really paints a picture of what he was trying to convey in his workshop. I can’t claim credit for finding it, he used it in another workshop I attended. I’m still working on my dialogue. I tend to want to over explain things and I must CUT CUT CUT.


  7. jbrayweber says:

    Great post and great examples, Stacey! JSB was AMAZING! He is my new favorite speaker. I learned so, so much from him at the conference. I loved his wit and his movie examples.

    Dialogue is the most effective way to figuring out a character’s, well, character. LOL! The interaction, the off-beat comments, the INTERNAL dialogue, it all brings the pieces together. I especially enjoy a good round of banter, myself. 😉


  8. If you haven’t done it already- I highly suggest folks buy his books on craft. They are easy to read, and broken down into sections so you don’t feel like you have to plow through the whole thing at any given time. He really is a wonderful teacher and I learned so much from him!
    BTW- your books are full of saucy banter!


  9. Sarah Andre says:

    Thanks for the snippet, Stacey! I’m still upset I was out of town for his presentation so any words of wisdom are greatly appreciated!


  10. We missed seeing your smiling face, but I think you had a pretty wonderful time yourself! I will probably write another blog on his words of wisdom because he packed so much incredible information in, my hand is still cramping from taking notes! Dialogue is often an overlooked portion of writing and it truly can flavor your whole book.


  11. jdfaver says:

    Great post, Stacey. My brain is still on overload from the conference. I’m almost afraid to open my notes to see if there is any coherent thought there. Thanks for making the dialogue easy to chew on.


  12. You are so welcome, June. My brain is also still trying to wade through all the notes I took down and trying to make sense of it all.


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