Ann Dee Ellis: “Dialogue Boot Camp: How to Talk Teenage”
Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in YA/ Middle Grade novels.
Clips from teenage shows—listen to dialogue and decide if it’s effective. Sit coms. “Saved by the Bell”—was it accurate? (Lousy) “Freaks and Geeks” (more accurate—minimal, lots of awkward space, shorter lines; “kids just talk in shorter sentences ”)
In the bad example, characters are very stereotyped.
1. Keep it real.
-You need to know your character. What would your character do if someone threw juice in their face ?
Example: Junie B. Jones, and how she reacts in a social situation.
-We rarely say exactly what we think. Dialogue allows you to show a new side to your characters. Because what they think is not what comes out of their mouth. (This creates some very teenage-ish tension.)
Example: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart.
-Sometimes what your character doesn’t say reveals more about them than what they do say.
Example: Olivia Saves the Circus
Example: Looks by Madeleine George
Exercise: write a scene in which your main character shows through dialogue that they like someone.
2. Keep it Simple
-Let your tags off the hook. Use sparingly.
Example: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
-Beats allow you to show action, avoid talking head, move time and reveal character (body language). An interruption of the dialogue to add description/action.
Example: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.
-Trim your face off. Dialogue is not the place to do description, plot reveals, backstory, etc. (There are exceptions. Always do what feels real.)
TRUST YOUR READERS MORE. YOU CAN TAKE THINGS OUT.
-Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.”
Exercise: write a scene between key characters using beats instead of tags.
How do you write using teen slang without dating it? Answer: don’t use slang. Use other ways to show it’s a teen. Short lines. Awkward pauses.
Make up your own slang for that book--?
3. Keep it Musical
-Eavesdrop: the song of conversation. Dialogue is musical. Listen to the ups and downs of people’s voices. Use a notepad and make notes of what they say.
-write out passages from your favorite novels. Take note of sentence length and structure, when there is dialogue, how much dialogue, the visual effect on the page, the music of the text.
Look at the variety of sentence length in your writing.
-read your own writing out loud (or have someone else read it)
-Relax and have fun. Dialogue should be fun.
Things I need in order to write a book:
1. Likeable character. But she needs to have a flaw. But this flaw should be something we can live with.
What are the reasons why we will like your character?
-physical attractiveness (key in romance novels) (This is the cheapest one)
-altruism (Example: The Life of Pi, Slum Dog Millionaire) If character does something for pure reasons. (Example: Stanley in Holes spares his mom the details of what life is really like there.)
-Cleverness (Dr. House) (greatest wizard in Wizard of Earthsea)
-big dream or plan (Eregon)
-self-deprecating sense of humor (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)
-in jeopardy (rabbits in Watership Down)
-loves someone or is loved by someone
2. I have to be able to answer these questions:
This is a story about . . .
It begins when . . .
The main character wants . . .
she needs to want both a concrete and an emotional desire. Emotional one involves a change so that character is a different person by the end of the book as a result of the events of the story.
[2 kinds of story: 1) a lack (character wants something); 2) balance is upset, character wants to restore it (character wants something)]
Example: Harry Potter wanted to learn how to control powers, be a Quidditch hero, vanquish Voldemort (external); sense of family (internal). Frodo wanted to destroy the ring (external); go home (internal).
They may or may not get what they want. It could be a happy or sad ending.
-Why can’t the main character have what she wants? This needs to be a big reason, or else there’s no conflict and it’s boring.
-What will happen if the main character doesn’t get what she wants? This needs to be huge. Give more and more consequences as the story goes on, or make them stronger.
(break the big want up into smaller wants as steps to get her what she wants)
-how does the main character struggle?
Some say she should try and fail three times. This is 90% of the book.
-when is it hopeless? The book is driving towards a moment in time when it is hopeless.
-how does it end? Does she or doesn’t she get the objects of desire? What is surprising about the ending?
So, you get your story planned. Then you work the plan, writing a little every day. Don’t give up for ten years. After ten years, if you haven’t succeeded, start a new book. This one will go faster. If you never give up, you will publish it. Once you’re published, you’ll discover the best part was writing it. Talent is a dangerous word. If you believe you have it, you might not rewrite enough. If you believe you don’t, you might give up to make way for those who supposedly have gifts from the Gods. There are no gifts from the Gods—only hard work.
Ursula Le Guin quote about when people ask her how you learn to write. “ Same way you learn to play the tuba. You go out and buy a tuba, get some music, take some lessons, sit down to play—day in, day out, until one day you can play the truth on a tuba.”