Last night I was talking to some family and friends about my book, because naturally, when your passion is your art—well quite honestly—there isn’t anything else to talk about. One of the topics of discussion was the concept of dialogue. Primarily, they wanted to know how I created the conversations between characters. Now, for anyone who has attempted to write a scene, you know as well as I, dialogue can be one of the hardest parts of crafting any good story. Oftentimes when we are writing freehand or pounding away at the keyboard, what we interpret as clean, smooth dialogue, actually reads as choppy, blocked and essentially “fake” interpretations of how people actually interact with one another.
I remember years ago while Proud Souls was still in infancy form, running into this same scenario. In my mind I could see my characters interacting and it was as smooth as any scene on television. And to make it worse, after re-reading it (within MS Word), it still seemed to flow magically. Later, like I always do, I printed out my draft and later at night, when everyone would fall to sleep, I would read it aloud, again and again and the more I read the worst it sounded. I had fallen victim to the ever-present trap of formulating dialogue based on the concepts of good grammar and proper English. Needless to say I was stumped for lack of a better word and discouraged—more so than I already was. I stepped away from the scenes for a moment, continually taking mental notes however, preserving them within my mind for a later date.
One Sunday however I got my break. I have happened to become a fan of a show called Inside the Actor’s Studio, hosted by one James Lipton. If you haven’t seen the show, I highly recommend it. In an audience of Master’s Degree students, Mr. Lipton sits in a one-on-one session (so to speak) with many of the great actors of our generation. The environment is relaxed, allowing the guests to smoke a cigarette, have a glass of water, sit on a nice comfortable chair or by the end of the show, have a seat at the end of the stage, where they become readily accessible to the vast array of students and their inquiries. Knowing my passion is for writing and not acting (though I have been told to be something of a character myself) I realized something within the concepts detailed by many of the actors being interviewed. When on the subject of character development, and how so many great actors seem to take on the role of an entirely different person, insomuch that we believe wholeheartedly that they are indeed that person being portrayed on screen, many of the actors had a common approach to formulating and in essence taking on these roles. The answer was simple and I understood what I was missing within my writing.
When these actors are accepting their roles, based entirely on the producer/director’s concepts and visions and later a screenplay, many of the better actors shared how they immediately took on the role of their character, more importantly off the screen. The common consensus between these professionals was this: If they were to truly portray another human being, they would have to become that person for a moment in their lives, to see the reactions of the world around them and better understand their points-of-view and their prejudices, interests, likes and dislikes. And when they did this, they in turn, became that person they were asked to portray from the moment they accepted the role, thereby creating absolutely real fictitious characters.
And that was it! I understood then what I was missing in my own dialogue. If I was to create realistic scenes within my own fiction, I had to—in essence—become the characters themselves. Like these actors on the show, I accepted my role within the various characters of my story. And like an actor, I found a quiet room within my home, took my script or draft in my hand and with a pen, I began making corrections like a screenplay writer or director in a film and acted the scenes as they would appear on a stage. For instance, when the story opens with our hero Justin, sipping his whiskey on his porch swing, watching the darkness envelope his cabin, that was me. I waited for the sun to go down and I sat in a chair in the back of my home and I remained still and quiet, until all that encompassed me was darkness and solitude. In the scenes where Justin is interacting with Tessa Jameson, or with Reverend Polk or Ralph Parison, I took turns playing each part, studying the movements of my own body and natural idiosyncrasies while I spoke and relayed their dialogue. When I did this, I found a multitude of mistakes in my dialogue, much less artificial movements within my characters that indeed made my dialogue “fake.”
Take this example from Proud Souls. Without spoiling anything from the story, here is a scene where our protagonist Justin has his confrontation with the town pastor, Reverend Hillard Ray Polk. What I tried to capture within these few simple lines was not only voice (dialogue), but movement and internal thought process.
“You came here tonight for a reason son. I just want you to talk to me,” Polk said, searching for Justin’s face with his eyes. “Just talk. That’s all.”
In that example, Reverend Polk is addressing Justin in words easily interpreted as how one might talk. But if you notice, with the simple phrase “searching for Justin’s face with his eyes” it is easy for the reader to envision Reverend Polk possibly bending forward or moving his head side-to-side while he searches to make eye contact with Justin.
In continuing with this scene…
“I don’t know what to say,” Justin said. “Or where to start. I have so much anger running through my mind right now that I don’t know where to begin. I feel like I can’t see straight anymore.” He [Justin] ran his fingers through his long greasy hair and then scratched at his beard. “I don’t want to do it anymore.” I’m tired.
In this particular example we can [see] the character running his hands through his hair and then scratching his beard while he explains his feelings for the present situation. This particular passage ends with Justin thinking or saying to himself “I’m tired” allowing the audience to get inside his mental state to better understand the words he was [trying] to convey, being more than a simple I quit attitude, but actually an I give up state-of-mind.
And this state-of-mind is reiterated in a follow-up scene when Justin reaches a point where he wants to convey a message of potential suicide without ever saying the words And this was setup by the internal thoughts, movements and dialogue from previous scenes. Justin stood to continue his plea, waving his arms and hands in a manner of exclaiming his point. “They are dead! You understand that? I had a wife and a son and they are dead. Do you hear what the hell I am saying? They are dead and they left me alone here in this God forsaken world, to rot away, alone in some dirty cabin!”
Now I may never become a master artist at creating dialogue, but I do believe I have grasped a concept that is easily understood and can easily be applied by anyone wanting to add more depth to their interactive scenes. Besides that, when you are in the middle of a tough scene, working to find the right words to get over a particular hump, taking a moment to act out the scenes of your own story is one heck of a way to lessen the stress and quite simply laugh…
I’d love to hear what you think.