Monday, June 16, 2014

#2 Thing Movies Teach Us About Writing Fiction

The Problem

Ever heard (or had) a conversation in which the dialogue went like this?

Susan: "Hello, Jim."

Jim: "Hello, Susan."

Susan: "How are you?"

Jim: "Fine, thank you, and you?"

Susan: "I'm fine too, thanks. How's Megan?"

Jim: "She's doing well. How's Andy?"

And so forth.

If you were eavesdropping on that conversation, I bet you'd fall asleep or wander off to find more interesting fodder.

Yet many of us tend to write that kind of dialogue in our fiction.

Some of us are loners (okay, hermits) and we don't spend a lot of time listening to people talk. Some of us have been brow-beaten into believing that it's never okay to use an incomplete sentence in any writing we do, including our fiction.

We're shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot.

The Solution

The number two thing movies teach us about writing fiction is how to write dialogue the way people actually talk.

For Instance

In the movie While You Were Sleeping, starring Sandra Bullock as Lucy and Bill Pullman as Jack, the first scene when they meet could easily have turned into a "Hello, my name is . . ." exchange like the one between Susan and Jim.

Instead, the dialogue reads like this:

Jack: "Good morning."

Lucy: "Oh God. Oh. Oh, you scared me."

Jack: "Sorry."

Lucy: "Good morning, Jack."

Jack: "I guess I don't remember meeting you."

Lucy: "Well, it's probably because we've never met."

Jack: "That might have something to do with it."

(Sound of a car horn outside)

Lucy: "Ooh. Cab. I have to go. I'm really--- I'm really late 'cause I have to go. But I--- it was nice to meet you, Jack. So, goodbye."

Jack: "Lucy."

Lucy: "Okay, look, I--- I know that I---"

Jack: "Hey."

Lucy: "Hmm?"

Jack: "Welcome to the family."

Lucy: "Oh, thank you. . . . Bye."


There are some complete sentences in this exchange, but there are also a number of snippets that quickly move the dialogue and the scene along. And if the scene had included each person introducing himself and herself, and going through stereotypical niceties, it would have been five minutes longer and thirty times duller.

And viewers learn about the characters in the dialogue. Lucy is jumpy, nervous, possibly high-strung, and prone to rambling. Jack comes across as calm, collected, even taciturn, and stable.

If everyone in your novel always speaks in complete sentences and obeys every courtesy in conversation, unless your novel is historical and/or one of the characters' cultural origin is best revealed through through that style of communication, it'll be hard to distinguish one character from another. It will also be a challenge to reveal character differences with everyone speaking the same way.


What do you do to try to recreate realistic dialogue in your fiction? What movies have you seen that show you excellent examples of how to create dialogue that flows naturally and organically, and even that showcases some aspect of the character's personality?

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