Monday, I told y’all about taking a class under Cecil Murphey at the writers conference this past weekend. Hard to pass up an opportunity like that. He taught for about an hour, gave us an assignment for the 30 minute break, then had us read our dialogues for the next hour–Purgatory, he called it.
Much of what he taught I already knew, but I always pick up gold nuggets when I attend classes like this. Let me give you an overview:
- Dialogue is supposed to be believable, not realistic. If you’ve ever listened to two people chatting, most of what they say is punctuated with useless words–“well,” “like,” “you know,” and doesn’t often provide anything of importance. A “realistic” breakfast conversation, for instance, usually consists “pass the milk” and “did you sleep well” and a few other things particular to each individual’s routine, but nothing that would hold the reader’s attention for long.
- Dialogue, on the other hand, should never be purposeless. It provides information, creates tension, characterizes. Where is your dialogue going? What do you want your reader to understand about your character?
- It also one of the quickest scene-setting techniques around. Say your characters are going out to eat. “Whatcha havin’, hon?” is a whole lot different from “Do you have reservations?” That’s all that is really needed. Your reader’s imagination will supply the rest.
- Said, asked, answered, and replied are invisible tags. Anything else takes the emphasis away from what is said and puts it on how it is said. Sometimes you may want to do that, but it’s best to let what’s between the quotes carry the weight.
- When the dialogue is between two people, having each call the other by name is unnecessary–and is a definite mark of a newbie writer.
In our assignment, we were to write about a woman who, after being born again, had to admit to her husband that she’d had an affair. We were to provide the “moment of truth” dialogue. None of us quite got what Cec was looking for–which makes sense, since none of us are mind readers. But in his quest to discover someone who had an inkling of what he wanted, he asked: “Are you giving information or opening your heart?”
By the time your character is revealing something about herself that’s going to rip her heart out, you don’t want to be just “giving information.” At this point, picture the scene in your head, seek authenticity in your dialogue’s progression. Build the tension. How is she going to approach the subject? How will he respond? What will she say after that? What will he say? What are the realistic emotions of someone baring her heart? Of someone receiving the bad news?
Finally Cecil walked us through what he wanted, and we came up with something like this:
“Hon, we have to talk.”
“Uh-oh, what did I do?”
“It’s not you this time, it’s me.” (note the “this time”–that characterizes their relationship.) “This is so hard. How can I tell you?”
“Just blurt it out. It can’t be that bad.”
That is about as far as we got, but can you imagine his reaction when he realizes it can be “that bad”? The line he delivers indicates that he can’t imagine his wife doing anything worse than dinging the car. He’s in for a big surprise. How is he going to react? The “this time” may provide her a sense of justification for doing what she did. Will she revert to it in self-righteousness? Or will she admit she’d been born again and felt obligated to confess her sin to him? How will he react to either? When she begs forgiveness–if she actually begs–how will he respond?
Cecil didn’t discuss action beats and dialogue tags, outside of what I provided above. His emphasis was on creating tension through dialogue, and those of us sitting at his feet aren’t likely to forget the Purgatory of our assignment and what we learned from it. Maybe after sharing some of it, you won’t either.