Snap, Crackle, Pop Dialogue How to write banter that sizzles off the pages Heidi Joy Tretheway // author Jim Thomsen // editor
Dialogue reveals character • Education, socioeconomic status • Hometown • First language, accent • Catchphrase, slang • How they think (especially when not in their POV) • Strongest emotions • Lies
When to quote, when to paraphrase • “Dialogue isn’t conversation. It’s conversation’s greatest hits” • Juiciest soundbites: spiciest words • Strongest emotion • Paraphrase to break up long graphs of oratory
Example: paraphrase “We’ve got a long list to get through today, and the debate in Charlotte you need to prep for, ” Sasha begins. “I have the latest copy of your talking points from our writers, and I’d like us to go over some of the Q&A. ” She digs in to a lengthy list and I listen as closely as I can, but my thoughts are a jumble of what-ifs and could-bes. In a matter of weeks, I could hear my baby’s heartbeat. By election day, I could be showing. “Did you get all of that? ” I snap out of my trance. “What? Yes. Of course. ” “Then should I brief Jared and Shep or do you want to tell him? ” “Tell him what? ” She’s caught me again. Not listening. And I think if she had her way, she might get a little shock collar for me just to keep me focused. “That you’re good to take over his speaking slot in LA next Tuesday? ” Wait—what? “Next Tuesday’s Trey’s school speech. I can’t miss it. ” “You just said you’d do the Southern California swing so Shep could go back to Chicago. ” I backpedal. “I did? I mean, I know. But I can’t fly out until after Tuesday afternoon. I have to do that speech. ”
Exercise: paraphrase “We are building an 80, 000 square-foot Class A office building. It’s an elegant sliver of a tower. We expect to finish it next spring, ” Smith said. “He’s flying to Austin in a few days. I’ll have that time to decide if we’re meant to be, or meant to be apart. I’m pretty sure I know the answer. ”
Exercise: paraphrase “We are building an 80, 000 square-foot Class A office building. It’s an elegant sliver of a tower. We expect to finish it next spring, ” Smith said. “It’s an elegant sliver of a tower, ” Smith said. He expects the 80, 000 -squarefoot Class A office building to be finished next spring. “He’s flying to Austin in a few days. I’ll have that time to decide if we’re meant to be, or meant to be apart. I’m pretty sure I know the answer. ” “I have to decide if we’re meant to be, or meant to be apart. ” I count the days he’ll be in Austin on my calendar. “I’m pretty sure I know the answer. ”
Dialogue tags • “She said” is neutral—disappears into background • Also: “he asked” • They are speedbumps unless they ID the speaker • Show the (!!!!!). • How many more can you name? • Whispered • Muttered • Shouted • Cried • Yelled • Grumbled
Exercise: Dialogue tags • Use dialogue tags sparingly; express through action “Tell me what you need, ” she whispered. She leaned closer, her breath tickling his ear. “Tell me what you need. ” • Beware the adverb! “…he said [adverb]___ly…” should be a red flag. “I’m still trying to find it, ” he said distractedly. His eyes bounced around the room. “I’m still trying to find it. ”
Create a tag • Write one of these lines of dialogue with an action tag: “You never asked. You just took it. ” “It’s what I want and I won’t apologize for it. ” “It’s never too much. ” • We should know from the context if they’re yelling, crying, whispering, etc.
Action tags vs. dialogue tags • Energize your banter with action! • Did the action happen before or after the spoken word? Put it in the correct order of text. • Weave physical tics into action tags • Actions give emotional context
Example: dialogue only [Trey] How’d it go? [Grace] It went. Your hair looks good up. Jared knows his shit. Except for the part where he acts like a shit. Trouble in paradise? I think this one was my fault. He pushed me and I pushed back hard, and then … he just quit. He quit you? Or the campaign? That’s why Sasha Heller’s in the mix now, isn’t it? He said he didn’t want me to be his candidate anymore. So he assigned someone else.
Example: dialogue tags “How’d it go? ” Trey asked. “It went, ” Grace said. “Your hair looks good up. Jared knows his shit, ” Trey said. “Except for the part where he acts like a shit, ” Grace said. “Trouble in paradise? ” Trey asked. “I think this one was my fault. He pushed me and I pushed back hard, and then … he just quit, ” Grace said. “He quit you? Or the campaign? That’s why Sasha Heller’s in the mix now, isn’t it? ” Trey asked. “He said he didn’t want me to be his candidate anymore. So he assigned someone else, ” Grace said.
Example: action tags “How’d it go? ” Trey looks up from his computer. He’s the last member of my staff left in the office. Sasha’s done with me for the night, but she packed every minute of my schedule from seven tomorrow. “It went. ” I sink into the chair by Trey’s desk with an audible sigh and toe off my shoes. “Your hair looks good up. ” He nods to the hairsprayed confection of curls pulled into a loose twist, with a few soft spirals by my ears. Per Jared’s direction, it’s become my signature for public appearances. “Jared knows his shit. ” “Except for the part where he acts like a shit. ” “Trouble in paradise? ” I roll my eyes, unsure of how much I should say. “I think this one was my fault. He pushed me and I pushed back hard, and then … he just quit. ” “He quit you? Or the campaign? That’s why Sasha Heller’s in the mix now, isn’t it? ” I twist my hands in my lap. “He said he didn’t want me to be his candidate anymore. So he assigned someone else. ”
Tag it without action I sit back in my office chair, taking measure of Sasha Heller. She’s good. “Well put. Of course it has nothing to do with his car accident or his affair with a pretty campaign volunteer. ” Now it’s her turn to appraise me. “Well played, Grace. You’re testing to see if I’m going to bullshit you? Because part of being your campaign manager is being your vault, even if it means bullshitting everyone else. ” “With a stone-cold bitch face. ” Her ultra-serious expression makes me chuckle, and that takes some of the tension out of the air. “OK, I believe you. But keep in mind working with you is hours old. I need a bit of time … to adjust. ”
Revealing character with dialogue Character’s catchphrases (callbacks) Indicate emotional state Colloquialism, slang & profanity Use the level of linguistic formality of the character • “You’re the one it’s given to. ” • “You are the one to whom it is given. ” • Let an outsider character translate foreign or regional words • Contractions • •
Name calling • Natural conversation has few first names (unless you’re in sales) • Congresswoman Grace Colton is called: • Gracie by her mother • Baby Girl by her best friend • Darlin’ by her lover • Violet calls Jayce his birth name, Justin, when she wants his attention.
Foreign language • Don’t overuse dialect cues: gonna, wanna, somethin’, kinda • Add context to foreign phrases • Don’t translate colloquialisms • Use correct grammar … except when they wouldn’t • Add nonverbal projections: pop, hiss, grunt
Banter • • Show shifting connotations Misinterpret and misconstrue Pick up the other’s words* Natural flow: • Short sentences • Verbal and action interruptions • Trailing off “I’ve never been so sorry”—I crouch to his level, tipping up his chin to force him to meet my eyes— “as I was when I knew I hurt you. ”
Cutting the quote “It’s hopeless. The blood will never come out. ” She pulled her shirt over head and threw it in the trash bin. “It’s hopeless. ” She pulled her shirt over head and threw it in the trash bin. “The blood will never come out. ”
Mechanics of dialogue • No “speechifying” – break long dialogue with reaction beats • Only one person speaks or acts per graf. • Action tags must attach to the dialogue of the speaker in the same graph. • Short sentences or one word often require no tag. • Ending a segment or chapter on dialogue? Use context to ID the speaker—dialogue becomes a punchline. • Put the name before the word said, e. g. “John said” not “said John. ”
Mechanics of dialogue • When quoting within dialogue, use a single apostrophe (and ensure the smart quotes go the correct direction). • Foreign words are typically italicized, though that rule is falling out of favor for commonly known words, such as hors d’oeuvres and adios. • If a line of dialogue flows into an dialogue tag, use a comma. If it flows into an action tag, use a period. • If an action statement follows, kill the dialogue tag.
What’s wrong with this? “Nobody ever looked at me like that before, ” she smiled. She scooted closer to him on the bench. Correct: “Nobody ever looked at me like that before. ” She smiled and scooted closer to him on the bench.
Suggested learning • Read screenplays • Listen to an audiobook (note: they add extra tags because they don’t have paragraph context) • Close your eyes and listen to TV, let your imagination fill in the dialogue and action tags • Read the newspaper – see what’s quoted, what’s paraphrased • Tape a conversation, transcribe it. See how short/unstructured your sentences are. • Read your dialogue aloud – stage it (thinking of blocking for action tags)