“Working My Muse,” recently spoke about the use of dialogue in a story, I began analyzing this element in my own fiction writing.
I’ve often heard people say they dislike writing dialogue. The biggest complaint is that the dialogue doesn’t sound natural to them.
I can understand this.
The biggest problem with dialogue between our characters is that we AREN’T those characters. We are not involved in their situations. Oftentimes, the plot will be far from anything that a normal person will ever go through in their lives.
So how do we write proper dialogue for a situation we never experienced?
I wish I had the right answer for this. Most people (including me) will say to actively go out somewhere: a mall, courtyard, park, or a simple grocery store. Listen to the people talking. Listen to how they interact. Write down notes. You will hear natural dialogue.
This is all true. It’s the foundation of learning the art of dialogue. We must first listen to speech to understand and institute it into our own stories.
Yet I also have a confession to make. I’ve NEVER done that before. I’ve never gone out and listened to people in a public setting. Yet I can write dialogue. Many people have said I’m good at writing dialogue.
So what’s my secret? Why do I find writing dialogue simple? Why do I enjoy writing it?
I believe Eric explained the answer best in his post while showing examples from his current WIP...
I hope I am improving in my use of dialogue, but I honestly can't say if it's good enough. What I do like about this example is that I can feel their character coming through. I can visualize what is going on here, see these two having this conversation. I at least feel that I'm on the right track, but I do still feel unsteady when it comes to dialogue.
That’s the secret. Within every place of the story, you have to feel the character’s life. You have to feel them come alive in every aspect. Their conversation has to whisper in your own ears as being real before you can type it down into the story. Otherwise, it will seem out of place, unnatural.
Since Eric posted examples of dialogue, it only seems right to post my own. This is a chapter from one of my manuscripts. I choose this particular one because it has a lot of character interaction: 5 people will come to speak in this - whether in long conversations or simple one line statements. Also, I hope it carries the emotions of the scene. I hope the characters come to life in the reader’s mind.
Mike Larsen rolled his way down Elmer Lane headed toward the stop sign. One-way streets ran everywhere along this section of Lardo. The car would make a complete circle, or a square as it were, around just to get onto Pike Street and into the diner parking lot.
Larsen cruised along, taking his time and feeling fine this afternoon. All the properties he’d checked out showed promise. All of the owners seemed overeager for anyone to take the land, and the owed property taxes, off their hands. He even felt fine from his doctor’s appointment after the medical man bent and twisted the injured leg around and proclaimed the knee healed nicely. The doc slapped on a smaller brace and switched the crutches with a cane as the walking stick sat on the passenger’s seat. Now Larsen’s last task of the day involved stopping by the diner and getting the signed divorce papers. He could drop them off at Graham’s place, pick them up later, and drop them off at the courthouse tomorrow.
Mike Larsen was feeling fine. He felt even better than fine. He’d mark down this day as his lucky day while he glanced out the side window when passing by the rear of Carolina’s Dinah.
“Well, I’ll be damn.”
His foot slammed against the brake. The Cutlass did a stuttering stop right in the middle of the street. He yanked the gearshift into reverse and laid the gas pedal flat against the floor mat. The car swerved backward with rear tires running up onto the sidewalk. Narrowly, he avoided some ignorant asshole coming down the lane as the driver gave the one-finger salute. Larsen stopped inches from dinging the rear bumper into the street lamp and placed the car into neutral. The cane came along with him as he shoved open the car door and staggered over the slight curb into the parking lot.
His eyes hadn’t deceived him. He saw the shocked expression on the woman’s face and the caressing gesture made from the man who was her ex-husband.
Polly and Graham got touchy with each other during her lunch break.
“I’LL BE DAMN.” Larsen’s shout echoed toward them. Polly took a wide stance, preparing for the worse. Yet what boiled him up inside was seeing Graham Baxter leaning against the brick wall. The man acted so cool and calm, like he knew what he’d done and didn’t care in the slightest. What gall, what balls, Baxter had on him.
Larsen limped right up to them although he stayed out of kicking range from Graham. Polly came up between the men, dipping her hand into her purse and pulling out some papers. She shoved them toward Larsen. “Look, Mike. I have the divorce papers ready. He signed them all for ahhhh!”
Larsen’s hand came up and knocked her a light one on her check, pushing her out of his way. He wanted the woman out of this business. Larsen would deal with Polly later when they were alone at home.
The papers and her purse dropped from her hands. Polly staggered as she rubbed her cheek. Her shoulders hunched and her face lowered in shame. She held in the tears and opened lips, silently mouthing Larsen’s lessons without tone. Honor. Obey. She gave a nod and crouched, picking up the pages before the wind could blow them away.
Graham pushed himself from the wall. He said nothing to Larsen, dismissed him, as he bent down and picked up Polly’s things from her dropped purse. When they straightened, he reached out and caressed Polly’s cheek to her surprise.
Larsen’s eyes opened even wider. Her fiancé stood right there, and here her ex-husband touched her cheek again. He watched Graham turn around slow, really slow, much too slowly for him. Something was wrong. The man’s body trembled and swayed slightly on his heels. Larsen frowned. This could’ve been a trick, Graham acting sick just so he could later throw a jab. Larsen placed most of his weight on his good leg and lifted fists, ready for the swing.
Graham’s arms stayed by his sides. “No man’s right hitting on any woman. Only a weak man hits a woman to get his jollies off, and I don’t fight a weak man. It’s even worse than hitting a woman - like slapping a babe who sucks on his mama’s nipple too hard.”
Larsen’s lips curled. He snarled, “Easy for a scared man to say when he’s avoiding a fight, especially when he knows he shouldn’t go fondling someone else’s fiancé.”
“As bad as screwing a married man’s wife.” Graham turned toward Polly and raised the plastic sandwich bag at her. He mumbled toward her, “Take the stone to Marty. Have him get better.”
Larsen saw the red stone inside and shivered. He couldn’t help himself. His whole body flinched on its own at the sight. “Your boy isn’t getting any better.” Larsen lowered his fists a bit, loosening the grip on the cane with the wood chafing his hand. “And you can’t act all nice like with Polly and take her back with you by believing you can return to that life. Just face facts.”
“It’s not about me. Polly made her choice. This is for Marty. Our boy deserves to have a life.” Graham’s eyes implored her. “Star can do it, Polly. It can heal him. You know I wouldn’t be bugging you like this if it can’t.”
Polly glanced at Larsen, hesitated, then sighed. “Mike’s right. Marty isn’t getting well. And you’re right about a few things too, Graham. The doctors have stopped trying because they can’t do anything else for Marty. They’re not going to find a cure. We both have to accept it.”
“No. Won’t accept it. I can’t sit around counting the days until Marty’s gone. I’m not asking much from you. Take the red stone to him. Place it in his hand. When it turns gray, you place the stone back in the bag and bring it to me. That’s all,” Graham said.
Polly shook her head. “Crazy. This is so crazy. You’ve convinced yourself that you can heal our son when so many specialists can’t even figure out what the sickness is. You’re denying everything to yourself, Graham. Instead of accepting the situation, you’re claiming a rock has special powers.”
Graham chuckled, “I have hope in our boy like you still do. Why’d you take the curtains over and hang them in the window? Why’d you make his room feel all homey if you’ve given up?”
Polly shivered. Her eyelids blinked rapidly while she threw another glance at Larsen, hard and staring and asking for permission. He grimaced.
Graham shifted around and faced Larsen. He huffed in a short, high-pitched breath. Then he spoke to himself, “Someone’s been telling you differently. Someone’s got his lips in your ears again, wanting you all to himself, lying so you stay with him. My cheating. Marty being good as dead. Larsen got you thinking his mouth is the voice of God in your life. He got you thinking I walk around with a spiked tail and a pitchfork.”
“Polly?” The other waitress, Carla, took several steps around the side of the building. Deep concern lined her face. With all of them distracted, Larsen’s arm pulled around and spun outward, catching Graham square on the chin. Strangely, Graham flew back off his feet and sailed through the air faster than humanly possible as he slammed into the wall. He kept his feet but must’ve had a good knock of his head against the brick. He just stood there with his eyes fixed on the pavement. His hands still held the plastic bag.
“Graham!” Polly took a step forward.
Larsen raised his cane and leveled the tip at her, throwing an amused wink. “You better get inside, sweetie pie. We have a wedding to pay for next week.”
Her lips tapped together, wanting to say something. Then Polly gulped, clutched her purse against her chest, and twirled around. She hurried toward Clare who placed her hands on Polly’s shoulders. Both women disappeared around the corner.
When they were alone, Larsen made a swaggering limp toward Graham Baxter. He flinched when Graham lifted his fingers, then realized the man only wiped the bit of blood from his busted lip. It made Larsen’s smile grow wider.
“You have some nerve to call me a weak man. I’m not the one who made such a weak, sick son. It’s your fault Marty is in the hospital. Yet what can anyone expect from such trailer trash and their disgusting living? Is it any surprise your wife ran off with a STRONGER man, a man who knows how to treat all women? You can try to keep kidding yourself about Marty getting well. But when you go home to your lonely trailer, know your son will be dead by the end of the month. Crawl into your empty bed knowing your woman will marry another man next week.”
Larsen laughed while waiting for a reaction. Yet Graham’s features kept an even expression while he stayed silent. Larsen figured it came from Graham’s stunned thoughts. This smart aleck could say nothing now to act the bigger man.
Larsen leaned in close. “You lost, Graham. Nothing left for you to do now but lay down and die. Do the world at least this favor. Lay down and die and let Polly have a better life. Let her make herself a better world with what she’ll get from you and from Marty at the end of the month.”
“What’d you mean by that?” Graham’s face lifted. His hazel eyes looked tired. Weary.
Good. Let him accept he was nothing, meant nothing to no one, Larsen thought to himself and smirked. “Really. Come on, man. The only good out of people like you is what you will be worth when you’re rotting in the ground. Better for Marty when he’s gone and Polly can use the money in taking care of a real son, a STRONG son I’ll make with her. And when you’re gone, I can only imagine the property I can buy and build on.”
His voice turned dreamy. He thought about the one he had seen: the big plot in the pricier section of town. Beautiful piece of land. Virgin earth, the listing had described it. Nirvana, his eyes had said as Larsen imagined all the green grass and flowers rolled over under the soil. His workers would lay gray foundation for the apartment complex overlooking Clearwater Lake. By this time, he wasn’t paying attention to his words. His thoughts left him while he imagined how fantastic a life he’d have soon.
“Once I get rid of the crazy old bat, I can remodel the house to make lots of rooms and walking space. Put my very own office in at the back. I’ll have the finest house along the block. With Marty, I can have myself a really nice car, maybe a Porsche or a Jaguar. I always wanted a Jag. My arm can sit on the windowsill and I’ll have the seat pushed back while cruising by keeping tabs on my wealthy land. Graham will be the icing on my real estate cake. My properties will stretch from one end of Lardo to the other. Then I can expand. My company will take over store fronts and revitalize businesses. In five years, I’ll own most of the land in this town.”
“I ain’t gone yet. My boy ain’t gone yet,” Graham growled.
The smile faded from Larsen’s lips when he realized he’d spoken aloud. He stared at Graham’s face and into those hazel eyes holding a bit of moving red deep within the black. Larsen took a step away, unsure of himself now. Yet he knew how to change this mood. His fists came out and caught Graham in the midriff.
Graham’s body bent over. Then he straightened and slipped the bag into his jacket. He looked stronger now. More focused as if every hit somehow revived a bit of himself. His features scowled. Graham leveled his glaring eyes at Larsen’s face. “Can’t let you do this. Won’t let you make my boy into a dollar amount for your pockets.”
Larsen took several steps back with the cane raised in protection. His mind raced. Then the smirk returned to his lips. “You can’t do anything about it. Polly took out the policy: the mother of the boy. You can’t cancel it. You can’t even tell anyone about it. Who around this town is going to believe in a convict like you? Worse, they’ll assume you’re the man wanting the money. The doctors will turn off the life support by the end of the month. You can’t stop it now.”
“Marty woke up. Doctors won’t pull the plug now that he woke up,” Graham explained over the wail of sirens.
Both looked over when the police cruiser passed down Elmer Lane. They heard the car turn as it took the square around. At the front of the building, the diner cook stood with hands on his hips while glaring. Polly stood beside him with the other waitress. One of them must’ve called.
Larsen frowned. For her sake, Polly should’ve kept her fingers from dialing the number. He’d find out the truth tonight. He’d also find out if she’d done anything else with Graham out in the parking lot, something a bride-to-be shouldn’t do with any man other than with her fiancé.
Larsen held his cane sideways and at chest level. He staggered forward, ramming Graham’s body and pinning the man against the wall. Larsen whispered, “Don’t expect much out of it. Nobody gets in the way of me and my money. Your son will lay over in St. Francis Cemetery by next month. If I were you, I’d make arrangements now about your sorry carcass. Accidents have a way of happening when we least expect them.”
He heard the car door slam. Larsen gave a push of his cane once against Graham’s chest and laughed at the man’s stunned face. Then he limped back as the lawman sauntered forward. Looking thunderous when seeing them, the sight of the officer’s features made Larsen do inner somersaults inside his mind.
Sheriff Becken. Everybody in this entire town knew how he felt when dealing with Graham Baxter. Larsen tried his hardest to keep the smirk off his face. He’d swear he tried - no lying this time.
With his hands hooked into his belt like every lawman seen in the old cowboys’ movies, Sheriff Becken's strutting legs stopped beside them. “Boys scuffling again, I see. What did I warn both of you about the last two times? I’m not taking this nonsense any more.”
Larsen pointed his finger toward Baxter. “I want him arrested. He smacked Polly on her cheek. All I was doing was keeping him pinned until someone called the police.”
Sheriff Becken lifted his eyebrows and stared hard at Graham whose face had scowled more and more with every step the officer made toward him. “You go hitting on Polly?”
“You gonna believe me if I say no? You gonna believe Larsen did it if I told you that?” Graham shoved his hands into pockets and switched his angry gaze toward his feet. “Go ask Polly what happened. See what she says. See what she tells you and then you can decide.”
The sheriff stared at Graham for the longest time, flicked a glance at Larsen, and strutted toward the sidewalk. He spoke a few questions toward Polly while checking out the bruise on her cheek. She flashed her sight on Larsen, and he folded his arms over his chest. Her face lowered. She mumbled something. Sheriff Becken stood there another moment watching her. Then his shoulders lifted and fell at a deep sigh.
Larsen watched with interest as the sheriff asked a few more questions of the people standing around her: Carla, and Larsen believed the cook’s name was Maxis . . . Maxwell . . . or something. They shook their heads. All they could do since neither of them had seen the hit on Polly. Yet the other waitress pointed toward him and said something before pointing at Graham.
Even from where Larsen stood, he could see Polly’s eyes grow wide. The waitress bitch Carla must’ve turned snitch about his hit on Graham. His word against hers, and Graham’s busted lips. Larsen’s smirk returned. Easy. He’d claim it was self-defense. Not a judge alive would discount it especially with Graham Baxter standing in the courtroom. Everyone in this county knew Graham’s temper. He had the four convictions on his record. Larsen had never spent a night in jail. He never even had a parking ticket.
This could change today with his Cutlass parked right up on the sidewalk. He winced as Sheriff Becken made his way back through the parking lot. The officer’s head tilted to the side, looking at where the car sat with the door open and the engine still running.
The sheriff pointed his chin at the car. “Best get that thing off there and drive on home, Larsen. Or I’ll have it towed and you can pay the impounding fees.” Then he took hold of Graham’s arm. “Come on, Baxter. Let’s go.”
Graham shot a mean glare as Larsen backed away. With the lawman escorting him over, they walked toward the police cruiser near the three diner employees. Graham paused for the slightest moment beside Polly, looked up at her, and shook his head. Without any issues, he slid obediently into the backseat as Sheriff Becken closed the door.
Mike Larsen limped toward the Cutlass and climbed behind the wheel. Before he steered it off the sidewalk, he watched the cruiser drive away. He chuckled.
“Nobody will miss you when you’re gone, Graham. Absolutely no one.”