Try your hand at snappy dialogue

You live around here?

This is an exercise I use when I’m teaching creative writing. I always get a kick out of it, and the students do, too. I’m thinking it might engage the interest of some of the people who stop by here — and who need another opportunity to comment and thus get entered into the giveaway.

To start, I provide a question. For example: Do you live around here?

Goal: Write a one sentence reply that gets the whole story going at a gallop.  

Example answers:

What kind of question is that? I look like a bum to you?

Sure do. That little yellow job over there is mine, all nine hundred fifty square feet. Shingled the roof myself, which is how I come to do such mischief to my back.

Detective, not to embarrass you or nothing, but you got mustard on your tie, did you know that?

————–

For each of these replies you should have a some impressions about the character. The third person is a smart ass who likes tweaking authority figures. The second one is  talkative old man who lives by himself, and is lonely, and tries to engage anybody who asks him a question. And the first … there’s room for some interpretation there. A female, a male, young, old, all you have for sure is an attitude. But it could take you places, that attitude.

So here’s another question to open a scene. See if you can come up with a one sentence (or so) reply that gets the story going, and gives us something solid about the primary character.

How did you get that black eye?

No restrictions on who is asking this question. Could be a spouse, a stranger on a bus, a barista, an ER nurse, anybody. See if you can come up with a response.

Elmore Leonard: A Pitch-Perfect Scene

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series In Praise of Prose

Elmore Leonard

I’ve got this idea about a series of posts in which I adore somebody else’s writing. I’m starting with Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013 at 87 years old with something like fifty-five novels under his belt. At the time of his death he was still involved with the television series Justified, based on his Raylan Jennings short story “Fire in the Hole.”  The cast and producers recorded a wonderful short tribute to him that you’ll find after the excerpted scene below. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, start at exactly one minute in. 

This  scene is from Cuba Libre, a historical novel set in the Southwest and in Cuba. It opens with the sinking of the Maine in Cuba Harbor in 1898, and ends later that year with the battle of San Juan Hill.  Every time I re-read it, I fall in love with Leonard’s prose, his ability to draw a character in precise, short strokes, the effortless way he weaves indirect and direct dialogue, the rightness of the way the spoken language flows, the visual cues. All perfect. 

Note where the tense shifts from past tense to present tense, that’s a storytelling technique we all use in our day-to-day communication with the people around us. When you get to the exciting part, you switch into present tense. 


 

What happened, Tyler’s business fell on hard times and he took to robbing banks. So then the next time Charlie Burke actually saw him was out in the far reaches of the territory at Yuma Prison: convicts and their visitors sitting across from one another at tables placed end to end down the center of the mess hall.

Mothers, wives, sweethearts all wondering how their loved ones would fare in this stone prison known as the Hell Hole on the Bluff; Charlie Burke wondering why, if Tyler had made up his mind to rob banks, he chose the Maricopa branch in Sweetmary, where he was known.

He said on account of it was the closest one.

Charlie Burke said, “I come all the way out here to watch you stare past me at the wall?”

So then Tyler said, all right, because it was where LaSalle Mining did their banking and LaSalle Mining owed him nine hundred dollars. “Four times I went up the hill to collect,” Tyler said in his prison stripes and haircut, looking hard and half starved. “Try and find anybody in charge can cut a check. I went to the Maricopa Bank, showed the teller a .44 and withdrew the nine hundred from the mine company’s account.”

“That’s how you do business, huh?”

“Hatch and Hodges owed me twelve hundred the day they shut down their line. They said don’t worry, you’ll get your money. I waited another four months, the same as I did with LaSalle, and drew it out of their bank over in Benson.”

“Who else owed you money?”

“Nobody.”

“But you robbed another bank.”

“Yeah, well, once we had the hang of it…I’m kidding. It wasn’t like Red and I got drunk and went out and robbed a bank. Red worked for Dana Moon before he came with me, had all that experience, so I offered him a share, but he’d only work for wages. After we did the two banks I paid Red what he had coming and he bought a suit of clothes cost him ten dollars, and wanted to put the rest in the bank. We’re in St. David at the time. We go to the bank to open a savings account and the bank refused him. I asked the manager, was it on account of Red being Warm Springs Apache? The manager become snotty and one thing led to another….”

“You robbed the bank to teach him manners.”

“Red was about to shoot him.”

“Speaking of shooting people,” Charlie Burke said, prompting his friend the convict.

“We were on the dodge by then,” Tyler said, “wanted posters out on us. To some people that five hundred reward looked like a year’s wages. These fellas I know were horse thieves–they ran my stock more than once–they got after us for the reward, followed our tracks all the way to Nogales and threw down on us in a cantina–smoky place, had a real low ceiling.”

“The story going around,” Charlie Burke said, “they pulled, Ben Tyler pulled and shot all three of them dead.”

“Maybe, though I doubt it. All the guns going off in there and the smoke, it was hard to tell. We came back across the border, the deputies were waiting there to run us down.”

“Have you learned anything?”

“Always have fresh horses with you.”

“You’ve become a smart aleck, huh?”

“Not around here. They put you in leg irons.”

“What do you need I can get you?”

“Some books, magazines. Dana Moon sends me the Chicago Times he gets from some fella he knows.”

“You don’t seem to be doing too bad.”

“Considering I live in a cell with five hot-headed morons and bust rocks into gravel all day. I’ve started teaching Mr. Rinning’s children how to ride the horsey and they like me. Mr. Rinning’s the superintendent; he says to me, ‘You’re no outlaw, you’re just stupid–a big educated fella like you robbing banks?’ He says if I’m done being stupid I’ll be out as soon as I do three years.”

Charlie Burke said to him that day in the Yuma mess hall, “Are you done?”

“I was mad is all, those people owing me money I’d worked hard for. Yeah, I got it out of my system,” Tyler said. “But you know what? There ain’t nothing to robbing a bank.”

 

Summary: Dialect in Dialogue

I came across this material while I was sorting through posts, and I thought it might be useful to those of you who are writing fiction.
mouth open
Click to watch Polar Bear on Vimeo: storytelling in the classroom

Fact: everybody has some kind of regional and social dialect.

Question: Which features indicate differences in national or regional origin; social standing; economics, for the spoken language? And how best to get them across in the written language?

 

Continue reading “Summary: Dialect in Dialogue”

Uncle Peter’s Eloquence

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ ’cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntatic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy. The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never good. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

To be clear, this is not the only thing wrong with the novel. Oh no. I’ve considered the novel in more detail elsewhere, and brought down the anger of the masses on my head, so right now I’ll just point you to this post by Justine Larbalestier.  which covers the basic issues, both about the movie, and about reactions to the movie.

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