I Wrote Like Snoopy

I cut my authorial teeth on
dialogue as a playwright. I was the creative arts director for 11 years at my
church. We did everything from the 30-second sermon starter to full-length
musicals. When I first wrote my first few scripts, my actors often used
different words that I’d written, or they changed the sentences around, and
even…gasp…dropped words.
But I liked what I heard, so I
dissected the changes and found the common ground. I wrote like Snoopy, trying
to be literary. Gag. The lines were too perfect and not realistic.
Have you read a book where the
dialogue actually pulls you out of the story because it’s so stiff and
unbelievable? Or worse, it sounds like an info dump, as if the writer’s saying,
“You won’t understand this unless I explain it to you.”
Well, thank you Billy Sunday.
That’ll make me throw a book across the room faster than a politician can empty
your wallet. Unless it’s on my e-reader; then I’d delete it before it
contaminated the other e-books.
So what does make good dialogue
in a book?
It has to be realistic for
starters. And it has to be organic to your character. If you’re an Oregonian
and writing about a Southern Belle, you’d better have a Cousin Sue Ellen read
your manuscript, or it may well be stereotyped. The same goes for Sue Ellen
writing about a Yankee.
What if you’re writing a young
adult book and don’t have any teens or twenty-somethings living at home, and
you aren’t sure how the characters would really talk? Go to a local mall and
hang out in the food court and eavesdrop. Listen to the half sentences,
colloquialisms, and especially to the way people answer questions.
One mistake new writers often
make is found in the way characters answer questions.
“Good morning, Bob. Where
are you headed this fine morning?”
“Good morning, John. I’m
going to the hardware store to get a new float for the toilet.”
First of all, we don’t really
care about Bob’s toilet, unless his four-year-old flushed the latest Wiki-leaks
state secrets. A bit more realistic might sound like this:
“Morning, Bob. Where you
off to?”
“Hardware store.”
“Anything I can help
with?”
“I got it.”
“Okay, holler if you need
me.”
That’s how two neighboring men
would have this conversation. If it were women, it still wouldn’t be complete
sentences, but it might go something like this:
“Morning, Sally. Going
shopping?”
“Macy’s is having a huge
sale, and you know those new slip covers I got for the den sofa? John ruined it
with cranberry juice.”
“I hear you. Bob got
mustard on my bedspread. Why can’t they be more careful?”
“I think it’s in their
genes.”
“Yeah, he got mustard on
those, too.”
Anyway, you can see how their
conversation veered off the main track. We women do that. Men, not so much.
In romance, Jenny B, Jones is a
master at building conflict into dialogue. A few lines from Save the Date illustrate this point
well:
“Do you know anything about
football?”
“You toss around a ball and
throw people to the ground. What else is there to know?”
“Okay then, what’s a
birdcage?”
“The name of the bar where
you met your last girlfriend?”
“A cut?”
“A fantasy I have involving
your throat.”
She never answered his questions
seriously and he kept asking instead of commenting on what she said. It was
brilliant dialogue for building character and a great example of verbal
ping-pong.
For realistic dialogue, remember
to:
Study they way dialogue is
written in books you love
Listen to people engage in
conversation and study their responses

Do you have any great examples
of dialogue to share with us?