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.