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Concrete Solutions for Real Dialogue Problems
Transcript of Concrete Solutions for Real Dialogue Problems
How do I avoid long speeches?
As we've discussed, people rarely give spontaneous "long speeches" in real life. When someone has a "revelation" about their life, they usually don't have an eloquent or stirring speech prepared to give to those around them! Here are a few tips for breaking up "long speeches" you may be tempted to include in your work:
1. If you absolutely must include a "long speech," try to break it up with gesture and action at the very least!
2. Feel free to let other character "interrupt" the one who is tempted to give a "speech."
3. Make sure that the character giving a "speech" doesn't use language or vocabulary that would be unnatural for them to use.
4. Make sure that it isn't contradictory to the nature of the character to give a speech!
5. Remember that SUBTLETY IS KEY. Just one or two lines are often enough to evoke a world of happiness, grief, or regret. Here is an example of a subtle "revelation moment" from "Babylon Revisited," one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous stories. In this story, the protagonist, Charlie, has spent the entire story trying to overcome his past reputation (a life of dissipation during the Roaring Twenties). Now, after the stock market has crashed and his wife has died, he is left trying to become a better man and regain custody of his young daughter.
Charlie went directly to the Ritz bar with the furious idea of finding Lorraine and Duncan, but they were not there, and he realized that in any case there was nothing he could do. He had not touched his drink at the Peters', and now he ordered a whisky-and-soda. Paul came over to say hello.
"It's a great change," he said sadly. "We do about half the business we did. So many fellows I hear about back in the States lost everything, maybe not in the first crash, but then in the second. Your friend George Hardt lost every cent, I hear. Are you back in the States?"
"No, I'm in business in Prague."
"I heard that you lost a lot in the crash."
"I did," and he added grimly, "but I lost everything I wanted in the boom."
"Something like that."
How do I show believable emotion via dialogue?
In real life, people rarely state exactly what they're feeling. Most people are at least a little guarded about their actual emotions, especially if they are strong emotions. They may be guarded due to several reasons: politeness, fear, a desire to avoid "messy" emotional scenes, etc.
Weak: "I can't believe you left me to take care of her all by myself last weekend," said Jane. "I'm so angry I could just scream at you."
Better: "You left us alone," said Jane. "That whole weekend I don't think I slept at all."
Here is a real example of dialogue from "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury. In this science fiction story, a wife worries about the effect a high-tech nursery - and their "Happylife Home" house in general - may be having on her family. From this dialogue, we can deduce that Lydia is anxious and a little frustrated with her husband. However, she doesn't need to explicitly declare those emotions:
"George, I wish you'd look at the nursery."
"What's wrong with it?"
"I don't know."
"I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to look at it."
"What would a psychologist want with a nursery?"
"You know very well what he'd want." His wife paused in the middle of the kitchen and watched the stove busy humming to itself, making supper for four. "It's just that the nursery is different now than it was."
"All right, let's have a look."
What else can I avoid?
Language that does not fit the character and scene. For instance:
Fit the CHARACTER: Do not put formal, complex sentences in the dialogue of a toddler (unless you have a very good narrative reason!) However, if a 65-year-old academic uses formal language, it may sound more appropriate.
Fit the SCENE: It might sound unusual to use formal language in a conversation about whose turn it is to take out the trash (unless you're playing it for humor or have another good reason). However, formal language at a funeral may be appropriate.
How do I bring up background (exposition) naturally?
As we discussed before, it can be tricky to reveal important background information via dialogue. When a character provides a piece of information about which everyone in the conversation is aware, it usually sounds fake and unrealistic.
"Did you know our ten-year-old son Dan went to bed too late last night? He's going to be tired all day at school."
"Did you know Dan was reading until 1AM last night?"
"Give him a break. I used to do that all the time."
"Maybe he could get away with this in fourth grade, but his classes are much harder this year."
Of course, revealing background via dialogue is made MUCH easier when one character is "new" to the situation or information. For example, consider this dialogue between Charlie and Alix in Babylon Revisited:
"Remember the night of George Hardt's bachelor dinner here?" said Charlie. "By the way, what's become of Claude Fessenden?"
Alix lowered his voice confidentially: "He's in Paris, but he doesn't come here any more. Paul doesn't allow it. He ran up a bill of thirty thousand francs, charging all his drinks and his lunches, and usually his dinner, for more than a year. And when Paul finally told him he had to pay, he gave him a bad check."