Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Years ago in Los Angeles, some friends and I were hanging out in a coffee bar. That alone was amazing, since I’m a country mouse. The friend who took us there, a city mouse, knew all the cool spots.
It was early evening and the door was thrown open; the sounds of city traffic were audible wallpaper. Various couches and over-stuffed armchairs were positioned in groupings, so people could have their own conversational pods. It was charming, although close quarters with others a few feet away. We talked and laughed for about an hour.
As we were leaving my friend said to me out on the sidewalk. “Did you see that guy next to you? He was taking notes on our conversation the entire time! I’ll bet he’s screenplay writer, trying to get ideas for dialogue.”
I vaguely remembered him, a quiet guy, maybe in his twenties, on the other side of the couch, writing in a notebook. My first thought was, Wow, how creepy is that? But when I got past the voyeurism, I considered how hard it is to capture the way people actually talk.
Our conversation at the coffee shop, properly documented, was probably filled with incomplete and run-on sentences, peppered with lots of ums and you knows. Hardly Noël Coward material.
I thought about the mindfulness writers bring to their stories by writing dialogue. Actual transcription can be messy, and writing that’s too on-the-nose can be boring. So the trick is to naturally capture the spirit of the character.
When I imagine my characters, I start with a physical impression. What’s their age, life experience, outlook? Their voice brings the character to life, and an outer-dialogue can be different from an inner-dialogue. While we may love the backstory, descriptions, and actions of our characters, it’s the dialogue we often remember, because that’s where the character speaks to us, directly from the page.
In my second book, which I’m currently writing, the main characters (twins Rachel and Sienna) are introduced as 13-year-old girls. They quickly grow into 20-year-old young women. Through it all, they’re individuals with their own unique ways of viewing the world. As I worked with these characters, I heard their voices clearly. Sienna’s is lyrical, a bit rushed. Rachel’s voice is more subdued, deeper.
Characters come to life with each experience you give them, because that’s when you’re getting inside their heads. Creating a character is like being the ultimate psychologist, with an imaginary movie camera and microphone. You have to find out what scares the character, what they long for, and what they’d do if they actually get what they’re wishing for. The characters talk to the writer and the writer keeps saying, “Okay, tell me more.”
When I work on a scene, I have to ask myself: is this true for the character? Would he or she really say that? The best test is to read a scene out loud. It helps reveal the false notes, and makes it easier to tell if dialogue flows and seems natural, in your character’s true voice.
Here’s an excerpt from The Headshrinker’s Brigade: it’s a group therapy scene that introduces Slate, a 19-year-old who has been court-mandated for therapy due to attempted arson.
Slate’s scowling face relaxed and became thoughtful. “Yeah, that’s about right. I wasn’t mad at nobody here, just more...” he spread his arms wide, “...you know, pissed at my dad for being such a hard ass and mom for cutting out and leaving me and my brother. Anyway, that day was the day my dad woke up drunk and started right up drinking where he left off. By noon, he was looking for something to get ticked off about. That’s when he walked through the garage and saw the gas can lid was off. He yelled at me, saying I was going to blow the whole house up, and what was I, a fire bug?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I found the lid, crammed it on, then grabbed the damn can and my skateboard. I was skating, and I got to thinking how cool it would be to see something burn the hell up. Like a friggin’ bonfire, you know? I wasn’t going in any direction and probably rode out of habit, because I’d already been passing by here for awhile. That’s when I rode up to this old raggedy place and I walked on in. Maybe I knew I was carrying the stupid can, maybe I didn’t. Honestly, I don’t remember. The cops can say all day long that I asked for matches, but that don’t sound right. Shit, I could’ve grabbed matches off my dad’s smokes right there on the front stoop, so how serious could I’ve been? Threatening to burn something shouldn’t be treated the same as torching something, should it?”
Nadine snorted. “Darling, if someone thought you actually meant to start a fire, you wouldn’t be sitting here with us having a chat. You’d be talking to your lawyer through a one-inch plate of glass with a speaker in the middle. And trust me, I’ve visited Justin in places like that enough to know those orange jumpsuits don’t flattering nobody.”
Slate was silent, then tilted his head back and expelled a long breath. “I thought once I turned eighteen and became a legal adult, things would start to go my way. Shit, now I’m nineteen and legal as hell and I’m still going nowhere. Older don’t mean better. Things only suck harder.”
His ears pinked and Julia could detect the vulnerable little boy underneath the rumpled teen.
“Slate, I agree with you about how things get harder as we get older,” Marlene said. “We take on more responsibility, maybe it’s unpleasant and maybe exhilarating. I believe it depends on what you tell yourself and the choices you make. We aren’t given freedom, we earn it.”
With these three characters, I share their interior world through dialogue by letting them tell their own stories.
While I was writing I’d think, Okay, what would Slate say here? Nadine knows about hard times, how might she respond?
And what’s really cool is that when I’m able to understand these characters in my mind, invariably they answer my questions, loud and clear.