StreetWrites Workshop for Writing Out of the Margins

Believable Dialogue

     Have you heard someone read a story out loud, and you couldn't tell which character was speaking because they all sounded alike?
     Have you ever winced when a character says something that nobody in real life would ever say, let alone a fifteen-year-old supermarket bag-boy? "You must drive well, ma'am, for the roads are well-iced tonight."
     Have you ever groaned when the girlfriend in the sf novel begins musing out loud about the events of the last 100 years, therefore bringing the reader up to date in a fashion that no listener would ever sit still for, let alone "a man with a rock-hard jaw who makes split-second decisions under fire"?
     Okay. How do you avoid causing such pain to others?

Speaking in Character

     When you cause a jar to your reader, you want it to be deliberate. Robert B. Parker writes a series of popular detective novels featuring the hard-bitten Spenser and his even harder friend Hawk. Both Spenser and Hawk are capable of talking in different styles: hard-bitten, wise-cracking gumshoe; sensitive and intelligent man; educated executive. They talk appropriately to the setting, unless the author wants to call special attention to them, and then Hawk may exaggerate his ghetto-black style, or speak as an upwardly-mobile young black executive.
     Compare two passages from Sudden Mischief. Here's Spenser talking to his girlfriend's ex-husband, a slightly sleazy yuppie whom he enjoys out-classing:
    "You didn't touch these women?"
     "Absolutely not," Sterling said.
     "Were you obscene?"
     "Of course not."
     "Did they work for you?"
     "Not really. They were volunteers. I mean I was the top of the pyramid, I suppose, and they were down the slope a bit. But they didn't work for me."
     "If you lose, can you pay the judgment?"
     "That's not the point. I'm ..." He grinned. "I'm an innocent man."
     "But you could pay it."
     "You're not at the brink of, ah, dissolution?"
     "Dissolute, yes, wherever possible," Sterling said. "Dissolution? Not hardly."
     Sterling made a gesture that encompassed the office and the view. "This look like dissolution?"
     "All it proves is that they haven't evicted you," I said.

And here is Spenser facing off with a mobster:

     "What's the current scam?" I said. "You and Gavin?"
     The blood was seeping between his fingers and staining his shirt front. He could see himself in the mirror, and I think it scared him.
     "We run a little money through him," Haskell said.
     "He wash it?"
     "He never said. Talk to him, for crissake. I don't know what he's doing."
     It made sense. Galapalooza was an excellent money-laundering vehicle. Haskell wasn't winning this. He really didn't know anything. I went into the bathroom and got a hand towel and soaked it in cold water and wrung it out and went back and handed it to Haskell.
     "Okay," I said. "I'll mark your fine paid. I'll talk to Gavin. I find out you lied, I'll be back."
     "I ain't lying."
     "Anybody, you, someone employed by you, someone related to you, someone that knows you, comes within sight of Susan Silverman again and I'll kill you."
     "I don't know her. I got nothing to do with her," Haskell said.
     "Keep it that way," I said. "One reason for this meeting is to help you understand that I can get to you."

Telling the Story

     Dialogue can be used to tell the story, but it must be done lightly.
     "Hey, is that one of the new neutron robots over there, Joe?"
     "Yeah, Jeff, it is. As you recall, there was a big fuss when Professor Peterson first invented them in 2005, but after they played such a big part in making the Mars colonization of 2008 profitable the media began praising them and they are now pretty widely accepted."
     "Is that your new girlfriend, Joe, the smasher with the matching gold hair and skinsuit?"
     "You bet, Jeff, and keep your eyes in your head good buddy, you look like a Transmagorian Frogman. That's Josie, Professor Peterson's beautiful genius daughter, who graduated summa cum laude from MIT when she was 18. As you know, that scumbag Professor Whidbey-Vader has tried to break up our romance ever since he was her thesis adviser, because he wants her for himself, as well as all her father's scientific secrets. But she loves only me."
     Not like that.

Try It Out

     Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

     "What do you think this is for?"
     "That is for ... cleaning the toe-jam out of walrus feet."
     "We have never had a walrus, a walrus has never had feet, and if you want me to go on cleaning these drawers out you had better not give me any shit."
     "Okay. What do you think this is?"
     "That is obviously a tool for digging the navel lint out of a sea-whelk."
     "Do sea-whelk's even have navels?"
     "Haven't you ever seen one? They're all navel."
     "Why, pray tell, does your 1999 FolkLife button belong in the silverware drawer?"
     "It doesn't. Don't put it back there."
     "I didn't put it there in the first place!"
     "I didn't say you did. I said don't put it back there."

Guidelines for Critique:

Write On!
Anitra L. Freeman

StreetWrites Workshop Exercises