Thursday, November 14, 2013

Putting Words In Your Characters' Mouths


Last night Ken and I went to a dinner/theater in suburban Kansas City. The New Theater is known for excellent buffet dinners and plays that bring a smile to an audience's faces. Each of the 5 or so offerings over the year have a celebrity star accompanied by the local cast. This time, the pla was "Never Too Late" which starred George Wendt and his real life wife, Bernadette Birkett. You may remember Wendt as Norm in the top-rated TV sit-com, "Cheers." We enjoyed him in the play just as much as we did in every TV episode.

The play centered around a middle-aged married couple who suddenly discover they are going to have a baby. Add a 25 year old married daughter and her husband who lives with them and it's a great situation for fun and frolic. Sharp dialogue moved the play along so rapidly that it surprised me when the end arrived. Seemed way too soon. 

As we drove back to our hotel, I thought about the importance of dialogue. In a play or screenplay, it's the whole story, along with some stage directions. There are no descriptive paragraphs to read. The backstory must also come through in the dialogue. The characters need to speak in short enough sentences to sound like conversation, not an essay they are reading. They need to use conversational language, not poetic prose as we do in books or short stories. In a play, dialogue is IT!

But what about when we are writing a short story, a novel, or even a creative nonfiction story? Dialogue plays a large part here, too. Rather than having the author tell us how someone feels, dialogue can be used to show the reader how the character feels or acts. It also makes the story realistic and allows the reader to relate to the characters.

The editors of creative nonfiction anthologies, like Chicken Soup for the Soul books, urge writers to include dialogue in the true stories they submit. Anyone who wants to be successful with this publisher will make sure some dialogue is in each story they send in. No dialogue in what you submit? That is a good way to find your story rejected in a hurry.

Are there rules or recommendations when writing dialogue? Absolutely. Go to our favorite search engine and use keywords like writing dialogue and spend some time reading the articles that pop up on the subject. Writing snappy or humorous or deeply meaningful dialogue takes some talent. Oh sure, we can all write what our characters have said but that conversation can turn out to be incredibly boring unless you pay attention to what you make your characters say. 

Dialogue is only one of the tools a writer carries in her/his bag of tricks. Pay attention to it.

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