Wednesday, January 12, 2011

People Talk and Writers Listen

by Jamie Freveletti

I was thinking about dialogue today while I wrote some chapters in my latest manuscript. Some have asked me how I get my ideas for dialogue. Well, for most it's just from listening to people talk. I'm lucky to be able to ride the Chicago subway, where the best dialogue is all around you. For instance, heard today on the red line:

He had a bad heart and then ended up having a stroke on the table. So he wants to unload his BMW. (speaker listens to response on the phone).

Yeah, well I can't tell you what kind it is--kinda looks like a Camry to me.

(I'm not sure anyone buys a BMW so they can appear to be driving a Camry, but perhaps the person on the other end of the line won't care).

He says 'aint nothin' wrong with it. Says he never had no trouble. He goes out, dusts off the snow and starts it up just to keep the battery going.

(Clearly person on the other end of line is suspicious and doesn't want to pay BMW prices for a Camry-looking type vehicle).

Well all I can tell you is it's real pretty and might be a good deal- cuz he can't drive it no more, him having a stroke and all.

I felt sorry for the man with the stroke, and cheered the person on the phone who was suspicious. I thought the speaker was telling it straight, but I wondered if the man with the stroke had underplayed to her any problems with the vehicle. Maybe, maybe not. Hard to tell with this one.

One of my writer friends comments that I don't have my characters swear. To her, it seems "off," because, and she feels, and rightly so, that so many people use profanity today that its absence is noticeable.

This is one part of dialogue that I avoid. While an occasional bit of blue language is appropriate, I'm always concerned that once I start writing it, I'll lapse into a complacent place where I'll be writing profanity for impact, but it will have lost any it ever had because it's littering the page.

The other day I made a point to listen to every conversation I could while moving through the city. While on the subway, walking to my appointments, or sitting in the coffee shop. To my surprise, there wasn't a lot of profanity. Neither the people on the train, the cops in the coffee shop, nor the man speaking to the newspaper seller were swearing.

The only place where I heard it was from a group of tough looking young men hanging in front of the McDonald's at the Chicago and State Street red line stop. This McDonalds seems to be a gathering place for people on the margins of society. There are street vendors hawking counterfeit bags, homeless people peddling for some spare change, and groups of teenagers that should be in school but are truant. Here the F- bombs were flying and the testosterone levels high. The corner feels dangerous to me. I always remain alert there, expecting violence at any moment. It's a visible stop, though, with very high traffic, so perhaps actual violence is minimal. I wasn't surprised that this location rang with profanity.

Teenagers do have a unique way of speaking, but not as "valley"girl, or "surfer dude" as many would think. That's a stereotype. Granted, the teenagers I deal with on a daily basis are attending school and not hanging on street corners, but while they'll sometimes say,

"Dude, I don't get why I have to learn physics,"

they more often will say,

"This is really a myth based on the Egyptian story of Horus" (whispered during Christmas Eve mass) "and I might decide to be atheist."

Provocative? Yes. Defying stereotype? Yes and no, because to be a teenager is to question what you've accepted without a doubt before. Anything different would be suspect. I haven't yet written a teenage character, but if I do, you can bet you'll know their age not based on the "dude" dialogue, but on the fresh take on life that they bring to the table.

It's easier for me to write dialogue than scenery, and I think this is because it's active. When two people are firing words back and forth at each other, ideas are conveyed. It propels the story forward. Getting each character's personal voice down is a challenge, but worth the time spent making each sound the way they should.

I'm currently writing a manuscript that contains a lot of characters--most intelligent and some quite evil. Their dialogue is bouncing around the pages, and I'm really enjoying it. And, no, none have yet used any profanity.