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Writing Dialogue: You're the Director


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Presented at the 2019 Boskone science fiction convention in Boston, this workshop offers tips and examples for punching up the dialogue sequences in your writing.

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Writing Dialogue: You're the Director

  1. 1. Writing Dialogue: You’re the Director Vincent H. O’Neil (aka Henry V. O’Neil)
  2. 2. Mystery and Horror as Vincent H. O’Neil The Frank Cole / Exile Mystery Series Supernatural HorrorTheater Mystery Mystery Anthology
  3. 3. Military Science Fiction as Henry V. O’Neil
  4. 4. OUTLINE • You’re the director—dialogue is your characters’ lines • Put your dialogue to work for you • Nobody talks like that—making dialogue natural • But some people do—ways to use voice
  5. 5. You’re the director • Dialogue isn’t just lines—it’s a performance and an interaction • Your characters aren’t real, but they’re still actors performing scenes you created • Regardless of the purpose of the discussion, make it interesting and make it work for you
  6. 6. Use business • “Business” is an actor’s non-spoken physical activity • It includes actions not crucial to the plot that help fill out a realistic scene/character—smoking, reading a paper, or playing with clothes or food • Use business to create pauses or to convey information / emotion • Example: A visitor left alone for a moment snoops through a pile of mail—telling us they’re nosy
  7. 7. Read everything out loud • Reveals clunky sentences • Identifies sequences that lose the reader • Read the whole thing—not just the dialogue • Try to perform the dialogue
  8. 8. Example: Scene from the movie The Town Read it out loud: In this scene, Ben Affleck’s character is arguing with Jeremy Renner’s character “There’s people I can’t let you walk away from.” “You aren’t letting me or not letting me do anything.” Affleck’s line can be confusing if it’s read without emphasis —how would you represent that on the printed page?
  9. 9. Example: Scene from the movie The Town As written: “You aren’t letting me or not letting me do anything.” Possible changes: “You aren’t letting me, or not letting me, do anything.” “You aren’t lettin’ me—or not lettin’ me—do anything.”
  10. 10. Put your dialogue to work • Opportunity to show instead of tell • Most human interactions are verbal • Can reveal (or conceal) information about a character • Can create drama
  11. 11. Example: Show don’t tell (A) Jack frowned upon seeing Tim’s picture on the refrigerator. Tim had slighted him at a party once, and Jack had never forgiven him. Now that Tim was obviously part of Nancy’s life, Jack disliked him even more.
  12. 12. Example: Show don’t tell (B) Jack frowned upon seeing Tim’s picture on the refrigerator. “What was that?” Nancy asked with a slight smirk. “Oh, nothing.” “It’s not nothing. You were smiling, and then you made a face when you saw Tim’s picture. Don’t you like him?” “It’s not a question of like or dislike. He said something unkind to someone at a party once, and I was remembering it.”
  13. 13. Nobody talks like that—making dialogue natural Dialogue has a purpose, but sometimes that purpose can make the interaction sound unnatural: •“We don’t write conversations; we write arguments.” –a TV writer of many years’ experience •Dialogue that conveys some kind of information should not be forced
  14. 14. Example: Convey information (A) “I saw Bobby Wellfleet today.” “Where?” “Outside the library downtown. He was standing there like he was waiting for a bus, only that’s not a bus stop. He looked all disheveled and spaced out. I guess he never got over losing his business ten months ago.”
  15. 15. Example: Convey information (B) “I saw Bobby Wellfleet today.” “Where?” “Outside the library downtown. He was standing there like he was waiting for a bus, only that’s not a bus stop.” “How did he look?” “Not so good. Kind of disheveled and spaced out.” “Spaced out?” “Yeah, like he didn’t know where he was.” “That’s not surprising. I hear he’s been pretty much out of it, ever since his business went under.”
  16. 16. Dialogue creating drama: William Gibson’s Neuromancer • At the start of the book, a disgraced hacker named Case is brought to an expensive hotel room to meet a man named Armitage • Armitage is tall, handsome, well-muscled, and wearing a Special Forces ear ring (in the book, the US and the USSR fought a brief war several years earlier) • Though down on his luck, Case is still cocky and resents Armitage’s condescension
  17. 17. Dialogue creating drama: William Gibson’s Neuromancer “Too young to remember the war, aren’t you, Case?” Armitage ran a large hand back through his cropped brown hair. A heavy gold bracelet flashed on his wrist. “Leningrad, Kiev, Siberia. We invented you in Siberia.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Screaming Fist, Case. You’ve heard the name.” “Some kind of run, wasn’t it? Tried to burn this Russian nexus with virus programs. Yeah, I heard about it. And nobody got out.” He sensed abrupt tension. Armitage walked to the window and looked out over Tokyo Bay. “That isn’t true. One unit made it back to Helsinki, Case.”
  18. 18. But some people do talk like that —ways to use voice • “Every character should have a voice so distinctive that there’s no need to state who’s talking” • Voice is the way a character “speaks” on paper • It goes beyond volume, diction, and tone—it can transmit the speakers’ attitudes and tell the reader a great deal • Voice can also be used to deceive
  19. 19. Using voice Every individual, real or imaginary, communicates in a different way, so you can use voice to: •Reveal •Conceal •Show change •Create conflict Don’t overdo it
  20. 20. Use voice to reveal • Personality traits: Speech is part of interaction, and the way characters behave around others can reveal their personalities—or at least what they want to show the world • Background info: Vocabulary, speech patterns, and expertise in a given subject are some of the clues that can be revealed through dialogue • Possible motivations: The goal could be stated outright, allowed to surface over time, or even blurted out in an unguarded reaction
  21. 21. Voice that reveals: John Steakley’s Armor • A human assault force in armored suits has attacked a planet controlled by an alien enemy • The aliens are known as Ants because they resemble them—except they’re three meters tall, use sophisticated weapons, and can rip into a suit with their claws • The attack is a disaster, and a lone scout named Felix has joined a desperate defense against the Ants • Although he’s been fighting Ants for hours, this is still his first battle • He’s paired off with a veteran scout, a woman named Forest
  22. 22. Voice that reveals: John Steakley’s Armor “This blazer’s almost empty.” “Yeah,” Forest replied calmly. “I gave you the one with the juice in it. Clubs, Felix. Welcome to the interstellar Stone Age.” “I thought we had plenty of power.” “Not for blazers they tell me. Okay—we’re the backup team for this area.” She waved an arm at an area behind the barricade perhaps twenty meters wide. “The procedure is to let breakthroughs alone. The line warriors ignore them. We—that’s you and me—are supposed to get them as they come through. Go for the head first. If you can’t reach that, try for the thorax.” “What about the eyes?” “The eyes are good too. Yeah, I guess you must have done this once or twice just to get here. Well, try not to look too bored, huh? You’ll spoil it for me.”
  23. 23. Use voice to conceal • Individual identity: A character pretending to be someone else could employ accents, vocabulary, expertise, and behavior patterns expected of their chosen role • Allies and enemies: Similarities in voice can suggest two characters would be likely allies, but voice can also be used to give the opposite impression • Making headway: Competitors who are getting ahead might hide this progress using voice that suggests frustration, confusion, or even dejection
  24. 24. Use voice to show change • The journey: Many of the characters in your story will be changed by events, and their transformations can be reflected in their voices • Clues for the reader: A player behaving “out of character” might actually be revealing their true nature for the reader • Establishing relationships: As the story progresses, some characters might develop affinities or hostilities— and the way they interact could change accordingly
  25. 25. Use voice to create conflict • Opposites: Hostage rescue teams and hostage negotiators probably don’t think or speak the same way —providing inherent conflicts • Beliefs and biases: We all make assumptions, and a great deal of conflict can arise from differences in value systems and value judgments—different voices can initiate that interaction • The voice itself: Too fast or too slow / too much jargon or too much explanation—can cause friction
  26. 26. Don’t overdo voice • Voice can be overdone—and make reading the story a chore • For example, accents and unusual speech patterns can add a lot to the story—but it can also distract or annoy the reader • Reading your work out loud, and “performing” the lines of dialogue, can reveal when you’re using so much voice that it’s getting in the way
  27. 27. Voice that’s not overdone: Frank Herbert’s Dune • The powerful Atreides family has been forced to move to a desert planet very different from their original home • One of their chief officers, Duncan Idaho, has returned to the Atreides family residence intoxicated • Idaho is confronted by Jessica, the Duke’s consort • Reading Idaho’s lines out loud shows that Herbert represented his drunken—and ultimately revealing— speech so that it’s readable and engaging
  28. 28. Idaho swung his unsteady head around to peer at an angle toward Jessica. “Killed more’n three hunner’ men f’r the Duke.” he muttered. “Whadduh wanna know is why’m mere? Can’t live unner th’ groun’ here. Can’t live onna groun’ here. Wha’ kinna place is ‘iss, huh?” A sound from the side hall entry caught Jessica’s attention. She turned, saw Dr. Yueh crossing to them, his medical kit swinging in his left hand. He was fully dressed, looked pale, exhausted. The diamond tattoo stood out sharply on his forehead. “Th’ good docker!” Idaho shouted. “Whad’re you, Doc? Splint ‘n pill man?” He turned blearily toward Jessica. “Makin’ uh damn fool uh m’self, huh?” Voice that’s not overdone: Frank Herbert’s Dune
  29. 29. Summary • Be the director – Read everything out loud – Perform the dialogue • Put your dialogue to work for you – Show instead of tell – Reveal or conceal information • Make the dialogue natural – Convey information, but don’t force it – Use dialogue to create drama where appropriate • Examine the different ways you can use voice – Reveal or conceal information about a character – Demonstrate how a character has changed
  30. 30. Military Science Fiction as Henry V. O’Neil