“Where are you going?” Bill asked.
“To the grocery store,” Alice said.
“Why are you going again?’
“I forgot to buy eggs.”
“Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.
“Yes.” Alice grabbed her purse.
“Well, goodbye then.”
Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.
Oh, wow! What’s happenin’ in this dialogue? I mean, what’s goin’ on? Man, is this boring or what?
Yes, it’s boring. Why? Because it has no conflict or significant action, and we get no sense of who Alice and Bill are as people. We must work on these things in this next revision step, and continue working on them no matter how many revisions it takes. If we’ve written their biographies and have come to know them well, this will make writing their dialogue a little easier.
“Now where do you think you’re going?” Bill said.
Alice snatched her purse from off a chair in the den. “Back to the grocery store.”
“A woman’s got a right to shop.”
“Not as much as you do.”
“Well, I forgot to buy eggs.”
“Oh, that’s another one of your stupid excuses. The eggs can wait. The hens’ll lay more of them tomorrow.” Bill plopped on the couch and seized the remote. He flicked on the television to the sound of cheers—a football game. “Where else do you plan on wasting my money?”
Alice jerked open the front door.
“I asked you a question, woman.”
“I’ll answer it when you quit watching ESPN all the time.”
“I’ll quit watching sports when you quit shopping so much.”
“A woman’s got a right to shop.”
“Yeah. I’ll be shredding your credit cards tomorrow, woman. A man’s got a right to watch sports.”
Observations on Revision
- Conflict: Conflict doesn’t always have to be physical or verbal, but in my revision I decided to have Alice and Bill argue.
- Characterization: We learn something about Alice and Bill. Based on this excerpt, Alice may be a shopaholic because Bill complains about her “wasting my money,” but we aren’t sure yet so we need to keep reading. Bill, too, may have a problem. He may be a sports addict because he watches ESPN all the time. Again, we’ll have to keep reading to find out.
- Three questions advance this story: (a) After Alice leaves the house, Bill threatens to shred her credit cards. Will he follow through with this threat? (b) If Bill does follow through with it, how will Alice react? (c) Do Alice and Bill have addictions that cause problems between them? If so, how will they resolve their issues?
Their conversation, then, sounds natural but it also advances the plot and reveals something about the characters, which is what dialogue is supposed to do.
Now that revision was pretty good, Cunningham. But haven’t you forgotten something?
Yes, I did forget to mention something–beats!
Definition: A beat is an action a character does that adds to a dialogue’s impact and tells us something about the character. Beats should be carefully considered for each character in the story, not just thrown in to take up space.
Example: If a character is insecure, beats should reveal that insecurity. How would an insecure person behave in different settings and situations? Some insecure people hide their insecurities by bragging, whereas others may be shy. How would a braggart behave at a party, for instance, if the braggart is insecure? How would a shy, insecure person behave in a party? Not all shy people are insecure. Some folks just have a quiet nature and don’t talk a lot—it’s part of who they are. Perhaps the same could be said about braggarts as well.
- Sighing. Bill is either worn out physically or emotionally. Or, he may just be frustrated. Or both. We’ll need to read further to find out.
- Alice snatched her purse. Alice is either angry or in a hurry, depending on the story’s context. When she slammed the door we see that she’s probably more angry at Bill than she is in a hurry.
- Bill plopped on the couch and seized the remote. Bill’s pretty upset with Alice, too.
See how these beats are put in the right place and how they work? Also notice they can be used to replace taglines. One of the literary trends these days is to avoid taglines and only use beats, but for what it’s worth, I disagree with this. Just like taglines, though, be careful not to overdo them, inserting them after every piece of dialogue a character utters because it gets distracting.
If the dialogue is well written, with every character having his/her own unique speech rhythm, pet words and expressions, etc., we won’t need to use too many of either. When we do use taglines and beats, however, use them in strategic places on the page.
All right. Enough already. What about three or more characters in a story?
Well, cat, we’ll get in that in my final post. Now go catch a mouse !