Recently, I received a call from my publisher. “You’re saving us a lot of money,” he said.
My response was instinctive. “Add it to my next royalty check.”
“I’m serious, man. We hired a scriptwriter to convert your novel to a script for an audio book. She had it back to us in three days. She said your dialogue was so natural, she pretty much just transcribed it.”
“You know what they say: ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’”
“Well,” he said, “yours is on the page, so we’re puttin’ it on the stage.”
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
Although novels, short stories, and works of narrative nonfiction are venues of the mind, I try to write dialogue as though my readers will be in an audience listening to a performance. It forces me to keep the dialogue crisp, witty, poignant, and supported by the right stage business. Let me share with you some tips from scriptwriting that will enhance your prose.
Begin by reading and studying other writers’ scripts. And by that, I mean reading them aloud. When I was in graduate school as an English major, one of my profs made us read out loud in class. We read long passages from plays by George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, and Agatha Christie. I was amazed at how this approach to understanding literature also served to sharpen my ear in regard to writing dialogue for my short stories. I still do this today with TV and movie scripts, musicals, and stage dramas. You can do likewise by obtaining play collections from the library or downloading public domain scripts from the Internet.
If you’re not confident about how to make a scene dramatic enough, you can surprise readers by doing a flip-flop. In scriptwriting this is called role reversal. A “normal” scene would have a mother going berserk because her 17-year-old daughter has come in two hours after curfew. But think about how much more intense the scene would be if the teenager were admonishing the mother for coming in late:
“You couldn’t call or text to let me know you were okay?”
“It’s a school night. I thought you’d be in bed.”
“You’ve been a single mom for nine years, and you think I’m not going to want to hear about your first date?”
“It was just dinner with a friend, Sweetheart.”
“You’ve been gone seven hours, Mom. That was more than just dinner. Why are you so late?”
You can write a whole scene in the standard way, but then you can swap your characters’ roles. What if the employee argued against her boss about giving raises to the employees…or the teacher argued with her principal, insisting teachers needed to spend more time after school fixing bulletin boards and preparing lesson plans…or the insurance agent tried to convince the customer he didn’t need to purchase a $250,000 policy? To readers, role reversal is so unexpected, it compels them to see how the scene will unfold. It’s edgy, surprising, and captivating.
HAVE DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTERS
If an episode in your novel is lying flat, or if the narrative drive of your plot starts to fizzle, enliven things by having a character explode onto the scene. When Cruella de Vil arrives at the young couple’s apartment intent on confiscating all 101 Dalmatians, she bursts into the room in a whirlwind of total domination. Her hair is flying, her arms are flailing, her cigarette ashes are flinging. She wails and screeches as she bounces around the room counting the puppies.
Cruella doesn’t merely talk, she bellows commands, insisting the dogs be rounded up, turned over to her, and taken to her limousine. Her volume is high, her words are caustic, and her behavior is flamboyant. There is an immediate new intensity to the overall plot. What Cruella says and how she says it instantly define her as the villain, someone to fear and hate and distrust. (Note: Don’t you just love how her name contains the words “cruel” and “devil?”)
You can do something similar. A drill sergeant can burst into a barracks at 5 a.m. booming orders. An ambulance team can ram through the doors of an emergency room calling out vital signs for a patient being wheeled inside. A judge can suddenly lose her temper, slam her gavel, and lecture the defense attorney. In each instance, the power and volume of the dialogue will define the role of the person speaking, as well as intensify the energy of the scene.
THINKING UNIQUENESS, NOT ACCENTS
When I’m sitting in an airport during layovers, I listen to the way people around me talk, and I take notes. I don’t try to capture a German accent or a Southern drawl so much as I try to record the uniqueness of the speech patterns. How do people pronounce specific words? What words do they like to use, and which words do they repeat frequently? I find myself jotting down idioms, contractions, word order (syntax), and even ways grammar rules are broken. I sometimes transcribe overheard conversations and later read them aloud as though I’m an actor trying to learn lines in a play. It puts people inside my head who don’t sound like me. This leads to diversity in my fictional characters’ voices.
TALKING THE TALK
When dialogue works well, it gives vitality to a scene and definition to characters. Often, it has to be rewritten many times before it sounds natural. However, revision is worth the effort because readers return to authors who can talk the talk of insightful, entertaining dialogue.
Dr. Dennis Hensley is the author of 52 books, including six novels and eight textbooks. A popular speaker and widely respected writing teacher at conferences, he is the Director of the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University in Indiana. You can see more of his thoughts at www.dochensley.com .