Monday, March 15, 2010

Let's Talk about Talking

As promised (or threatened, depending on how you want to look at it) in my last post, today it is my turn to start off the latest round in our blog chain. And the topic I've chosen is dialogue. Or for the Alex Trebec's out there, I'll put it in the form of a question:

What is dialogue?

Okay, that's kind of a big question - let's get more specific here.

Do you enjoy writing dialogue? Do you use a lot of dialogue in your writing (for our purposes "a lot" will be defined as more than a smidge and yet not so much that the quotes key on your computer is completely worn out.)? Do you have example(s) of dialogue you especially enjoyed from something you've read? Do you have example(s) of dialogue from your own writing? What about these examples makes them special?

Please remember to use an opening and closing paragraph and to keep your answer within the confines of the space of one blue book. Ha, ha - no just kidding about that - I'm not trying to write a final exam question here... although you will be graded and it may or may not end up on your permanent record.

Okay, lots of questions here - so lets get started.

Do you enjoy writing dialogue?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: Why yes, I certainly do.

To be honest, dialogue is probably my favorite part of writing (and actually reading too.), and because of this - to also answer the next question - I tend to use quite a bit of dialogue in my own writing. For me, dialogue is not only a great way to convey information and exposition, but it can also reveal so much about your characters.

For my examples I pulled several books from my shelves to get a good sampling of what really works for me.

First, in a totally cheater move, I am using an example from the book, "99 FILM SCENES FOR ACTORS".

STEWARDESS: And what would you like to drink?
SALLY: Do you have any Bloody Mary mix?
STEWARDESS: Yes. (she starts to pour.)
SALLY: No wait. Here's what I want. Regular tomato juice, filled about three quarters, and add a splash of Bloody Mary mix, just a splash, and a little piece of lime, but on the side.
HARRY: The University of Chicago, right?
Sally turns, see Harry, then turns back around.

This snippet of a scene from "When Harry Met Sally" (you knew that without me telling you, right? I mean their names are right there in the scene.) is so great, because using humor it immediately tells us so much about the type of person Sally is. In fact, this type of micro-ordering that Sally does is so indicative of her personality that it reminds Harry of who she is, even after not having seen her for years.

My next example is from the book "A Girl Named Zippy" by Haven Kimmel. This is actually a memoir, but the dialogue is just so wonderful that I couldn't resist including it.

"Daddy, do you think Edythe knows I ain't really a Christian?"

"Don't say ain't. I don't know. She sees you in church three times a week, doesn't she?"


Well, I'm guessing that she thinks of herself as a Christian because she's there, so she probably thinks you are because you're there. See what I mean?"

"Even though it ain't true?"

"Don't say ain't. Most people don't care if it's true or not, as long as you're sitting there with your money in your hand for the offering."

"Well, she for sure knows you're not a Christian because you don't even go and pretend."

He racheted a minute, grunted, stopped, and studied. "Oh, Edythe always hated me, even when she and your mom were so thick. And I never liked her, either. She used to call our house and pretend she was going to commit suicide if your mother didn't run over there every evening. One night she called and said she drank a whole bottle of iodine. I knew she didn't, but I called an ambulance and told them that she had, that she would deny it with her dying breath, and that they needed to just go ahead and pump her stomach, and they did."

"You did not!"

"I did. And she never forgave me, either, nasty old bat."

I stood looking at Edythe's yard. PeeDink wouldn't stay out of it, and every day she went hunting him with her rake. I couldn't even imagine how sweet my life would be if someone would just come along and haul that old woman on down the line.

Dad was looking at me. "Are you going to talk to me all day?"

"I might."

"Well, don't. I'm about to lose my temper and start cussing, so go find something to do."

"Okay, then. See ya, Daddy."

"Take care, Zip."

Just typing this scene out made me extra aware of how much information we get from this dialogue. First we see the dynamic between Zippy and her father. His repeated reminder to not say "ain't". Her answering him with the one word "Yessir." And even the way he ends their conversation.

We also get the story about Zippy's father and Edythe, which shows us that as patient as he is with his daughter, he can be less charitable towards other people. There's also some telling details about how his attitude towards religion.

Finally, what I like best is that I just believe this conversation really happened - perhaps it wasn't exactly word for word like this - but I thinks she captured the tone and content of a conversation with her father in a realistic way.

Okay, final example is from a book that I read fairly recently: John Green's "Looking For Alaska". The following excerpt is when the narrator first meets the title character of Alaska.

He knocked once, loudly. Through the door, a voice screamed, "Oh my God come in you short little man because I have the best story."

We walked in. I turned to close the door behind me, and the Colonel shook his head and said, "After seven, you have to leave the door open if you're in a girl's room," but I barely heard him because the hottest girl in all of human history was standing before me in cutoff jeans and a peach tank top. And she was talking over the Colonel, talking loud and fast.

"So first day of summer, I'm in grand old Vine Station with this boy named Justin and we're at his house watching TV on the couch - and mind you, I'm already dating Jake - actually I'm still dating him, miraculously enough, but Justin is a friend of mine from when I was a kid and so we're watching TV and literally chatting about the SATs or something, and Justin puts his arm around me and I think, Oh that's nice, we've been friends for so long and this is totally comfortable, and we're just chatting and then I'm like in the middle of a sentence about analogies or something and like a hawk he reaches down and he honks my boob. HONK. A much-too-firm, two- to three-second HONK. And the first thing I thought was Okay, how do I extricate this claw from my boob before it leaves permanent marks? And the second thing I thought was God, I can't wait to tell Takumi and Colonel."

I love the breathless quality of this excerpt. Before it starts we are told that Alaska is talking "loud and fast" and then the dialogue totally sells this - especially since three quarters of the above paragraph is one long rambling sentence. We also get the sense that Alaska is smart - she casually uses the word "extricate", but she also isn't immune to the typical teenager language of, "I'm like". With both the big words and the teenager slang there is also restraint though - every other word isn't straight from the dictionary, nor are the likes sprinkled in too liberally.

And now for the final part of the question - a sample from my own writing. You know how I said above that I use a lot of dialogue in my writing? Well, that's true, but I still had a difficult time finding an excerpt that made any kind of sense out of context. So, in a somewhat cheatery decision, I am using a scene from a screenplay that I wrote a few years back called, "Home Runnings."

As you might have already guessed from the title it's about a baseball team, and the following scene is the one where the ragtag team comes together - not at try-outs though, but instead, since McKenzie, the new coach, is a one-hit wonder pop star, she is instead holding auditions with the help of her son, Eddie.


BECKY, 12, a tall, athletic looking girl stands on a "T"
that has been taped to the stage. Her arms are folded.

So this is it? The big rebellion?

You trying out or not?

Becky stares at them hard.

Yeah, I'm trying out.


Becky Thurston.

Have you been on a baseball team

No, but I've been on the basketball,
lacrosse, field hockey, soccer, and
track teams.

McKenzie and Eddie are impressed.

That's great--

--I was kicked off all of them for
some "violent, non-sportsman like
behavior" crap.

Eddie's eyes grow round.

In track?

Becky shrugs.

You get in my lane, I knock you over.

Eddie looks concerned. McKenzie looks down at her pad and
then back up. Now Casey, from the library, is on the "T".

Okay, Casey, do you know what position
you might be interested in playing?
Casey stares at the floor and shrugs.

What strengths do you think you might
bring to the team?

Now on the "T" is Kevin, from the arcade.

Sometimes I pretend that I'm really
fast like a cheetah and I can run
Superman fast, like lightning.

He starts to zoom around in a circle in front of the table.

I'm fast, huh? Can you see me? Can
ya, huh?

Eddie and McKenzie's shoulders sag.

Um, Katherine, I see on your, er
resume that you've been a Cheerleader
since you were three, can you tell
me why you now want to switch to

KATHERINE, 12, a poised, preppy girl now stands on the "T".

They chose Stacey, horrible awful
back-stabbing Stacey Engvalls as
head cheerleader this year. She was
my best friend and she turned them
all on me!

McKenzie and Eddie exchange looks of dismay. Joe and Joey,
the two boys from detention stand before them.

Hey, I'm Joe and this is Joey.

Joey nods.

Don't worry, we have the same name
but we're not related or anything.

He laughs at his own lame joke and Joey joins in.


Becky as she swings an imaginary bat. She watches the
imaginary ball then points to an imaginary out fielder.

You catch that ball buddy and it'll
be the last thing you do.


Casey shakes as she swings an imaginary bat, still looking
at her feet.


Kevin as he does a monkey imitation.


If I was really a monkey I could
pitch with my feet too. Wanna see?


Katherine shakes with anger, as tears also form.

I don't understand it, they loved me
but now they love Stacey... and
they treat me like dirt... how can
they do this to me? I was Little
Miss Lewiston last year!


Joe and Joey.

I think we'd be really good at
stealing bases... heh. Get it Joey?

Eddie and McKenzie look thoroughly tired out by this process.

Congratulations you made the team.

Becky stares at them hard then points at Eddie and McKenzie.

We're gonna kill 'em you guys. I'm
telling you, we're gonna kill.

Casey stares down at the ground and nods her head.

Kevin whoops like a monkey some more.

Joe and Joey look at each other and then charge towards one
another banging their heads together.

Katherine dries her eyes.

I want to be the team captain.

Since this is the longest blog post in the history of the world ever, I'm not going to tell you what this scene accomplishes, but rather ask you what information you were able to draw from it. And then I'm going to tell you to keep following this blog chain, and to do that you need to head over to Amanda's blog next.


  1. Wow Kate...Must stew on this answer...Hmmm.

  2. Good choice for a topic!

    When I read Alaska's monologue, I thought that word choices like "extricate" seemed out of place in her breathless dialogue; her style of talking made her seem like a vapid airhead at first. But the word choices destroy the stereotype. I don't think we even need to be told she's talking loud and fast; the dialogue shows it.

    As for your example, I picture a montage of characters. This scene seems intended to show us just how unsuited the players are--and how desperate the coach must be to choose them anyway!

  3. This is a fun topic! So often, dialogue is a make or break on a project.

  4. The scene accomplishes what I think it really important in dialogue and that's voice of the characters. You 'see' each characters right off the bat. :)

    Nice post.

  5. Yikes. This is a great set of questions, but I'll have to think a bit before I get my answer together. I like all the examples you use though. Nice job.

  6. Great examples and great topic! I'm with Christine, good thing I have a bit to dwell on this!

  7. I work to make the dialog of each character distinct, but it always seems difficult to deliver multiple speaking patterns. Not an easy skill to master, but so necessary.

    Your examples were clear! Thanks.


  8. This one's going to be tough to answer :) Great post though. I love your dialog.

  9. Great post and topic, Kate!

    I like snappy, fast dialog like the excerpt from When Harry Met Sally! Gilmore girls has the same sort of quirky, quick dialog.

    Your example was great as well! Also fast-paced! Excellent!

  10. Nice examples! And your screenplay was hilarious!

  11. excellent topic :D Hmm I don't know if I'll post any of mine LOL we'll have to see :D I love dialogue...just not sure I'm any good at it :D