Dynamite

Copyright © 2011 Jeff Hester via Flickr,
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In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein points out that “Readers enjoy dialogue in stories and novels. Those same readers would hate reading court transcripts, even of dramatic confrontations. What makes dialogue interesting and so much actual talk boring?” (p110).

In essence, what is it that makes dialogue dynamite? Here, I’ll give you a CLUE:

Wadsworth: It contains evidence, I presume.
Mr. Body: Surprises, my friend. That’s what it contains. Surprises.

You’ll want to read Stein’s books for specifics (Stein on Writing, Ch. 11 and How to Grow a Novel, Ch.7), but good dialogue–dynamite dialogue–can be boiled down to that one idea. It contains surprises. Surprises that “characterize, move the story along, or have in impact on the reader’s emotions” (Stein on Writing, p113).

It’s not enough to give us information. It’s not enough for dialogue to sound like actual talking. If we really want to captivate our reader then we need to create dialogue that makes our readers “interested, curious, tense or laugh” (HTGAN, p91). A few pointers from Stein:

Dialogue is…

  • Immediate, creating a visual image of the speakers.
  • Indirect & oblique, not always answering the question posed.
  • Highly crafted with a grammar of its own. Essentially invented, not overheard.
  • Meant to be experienced/creates an emotional effect. “What counts is not what is said, but the effect of what is meant” (SOW, p114).
  • At its best when it is confrontational and adversarial.
  • Illogical.

Essentially, don’t take the reader where they want or are expecting to go.

A really great example of dynamite dialogue can be found in the hit TV series “The Big Bang Theory.” Seriously, these writers know what they’re doing. A fabulous episode (then again, they’re all fabulous) is Season 1, Episode 15: The Porkchop Interdeterminacy. (View first 8 minutes HERE).

For those of you disinclined to go watch the series here’s a quick example:

Leonard: So, how do you two know each other?
Missy: He once spent nine months with my legs wrapped around his head.
Leonard: Excuse me?
Sheldon: She’s my twin sister. She thinks she’s funny, but frankly, I’ve never been able to see it.
Missy: That’s because you have no measurable sense of humor, Shelly.
Sheldon: How exactly would one measure a sense of humor? A “humormometer?”

This approach to dialogue–creating surprises, crafting indirect & oblique exchanges, and using visual images that will effect the reader emotionally–will work for any genre of writing, not just comedy. Don’t believe me?

We’re gonna end this post CLUE style with three different versions of the same dialogue from a (hopefully) gritty urban fantasy. This scene comes from the cutting room floor of my current WIP, ATONEMENTS.

Clever intro (lol)
Buzz.
Joe looked past the vibrating phone on his nightstand to the blurry numbers of the digital clock. When the fuzzy lines came into focus he buried his face in his pillow with a rough sigh and reached for the dancing phone.
1:43 a.m.
“Joe Fitzgerald,” he said.
     “Hello Joe, it’s Tony from work.”
     “It’s early in the morning, Tony, what’s up?”
     “We found him.”
     “The scum I’ve been looking for all this time? Where am I meeting you?”
     “Pier 5. Next to Rams Head. And Joe, he’s already dead.”
     “Ok. See you there. Bye.”
     “Bye.”

That’s how it could have happened. But how about this?
Buzz.
Joe looked past the vibrating phone on his nightstand to the blurry numbers of the digital clock. When the fuzzy lines came into focus he buried his face in his pillow with a rough sigh and reached for the dancing phone.
1:43 a.m.
“Fitzgerald.”
     “Hey Joe, that you? It’s Tony.”
     “Ya, what’s up?”
     “We found him.”
     “Serge the sicko? Where am I meeting you?”
     “Pier 5. Next to Rams Head. And Joe, he’s chopped into tiny pieces.”
     “Ok. See you there.”
     Click.

But here’s what really happened.
Buzz.
Joe looked past the vibrating phone on his nightstand to the blurry numbers of the digital clock. When the fuzzy lines came into focus he buried his face in his pillow with a rough sigh and reached for the dancing phone.
1:43 a.m.
“Fitz.” He didn’t bother lifting his head from the pillow as he spoke.
     “Hey Joe, that you? It’s Tony.”
     “Hmph.”
      “Come on, man. Pull your head out of your ass and talk to me.”
     Joe rolled over. He hated these calls. Nothing good happened after midnight. Actually, nothing good happened ever when you worked the type of cases he did.
     “I’m up.”
     “You need to get up up.”
     “Tony, if I wanted a wife I would’ve married one.”
     “If a woman wanted you, you’d have a wife and a chance to get laid.”
     “Enough flirtin’. You didn’t call about my sex life.”
     “We found him.”
     “Where am I meeting you?”
     “Pier 5. Next to Rams Head. And Joe, bring your galoshes.”
     Click.

While by no means perfect, the last version is my fav because I love the banter between Tony and Joe. We get that they’re partners/friends without a lot of explaining. They don’t directly respond to each other’s questions or statements which makes the dialogue adversarial as well as adds to both characterization and tension. The final “bring your galoshes” (combined with some hints from a previous chapter) lets us know that the crime scene is going to be disgusting without giving anything away.

What do you look for in great dialogue? What great books, movies or TV shows with dynamite dialogue would you recommend?