Dialogue and Rhythm
This is an interesting one. I'm a huge believer in dialogue. It's one of your tools in telling a story, not to paraphrase what somebody said but to actually let us hear their voice, than in effect, we get to be you, and hear them saying the thing, and of course, when you write dialogue, it should sound like real life but better. You take out all the, so, how's it going, did you, how was your trip over here, did you sleep well, come on in, have a seat, all this stuff we really say in life, we do not need to say in our writing. We know it happens, it goes without saying. Here's a passage from a student writing. "When I got home from work that day, Patty was sitting on the couch with an angry expression on her face." I feel the need to point out some of these things. I'd like to have a pointer really, but I'll do without. Okay, sitting, do we need to know where she's sitting? She's just sitting. Angry expression, does anybody have an angry expression on their arm, or their leg, I don't th...
ink so. You need to be that tough on yourself, every single word, do you really need it? "It looked like she was very upset about something but I had no idea what the problem was." Maybe, if we just hear what happens next, we're gonna know that she's upset, let's see. "'I went to get my tip money from the jar in the kitchen where I left it yesterday, but it's not there, or in the drawer, or anyplace, it's gone', she said, in an accusing voice." If somebody says, their tip money is gone, and their saying this to their roommate, do we need to know that their voice is not gonna be very friendly? Probably not. Do we need to know where the tip money was being hidden or, when it was brought there? Probably not. There was tip money, it's gone. That's the important thing. "I just looked at her dumbfounded." Let's see about this dumbfounded, what that accomplishes and if we need it. "I was starting to realize that she thought I'd taken her money." Is there anybody who doesn't get this at this point? You understand, you know one of the great gifts for me of publishing my work for as long as I have, and hearing back from readers, some of you online, and some of you here perhaps, is huge respect for the intelligence of the reader. Readers get it, they figure out. I think probably by the time I'm 90, if I'm still publishing my work, I'll only have five words in my essays, (audience giggles) 'cause I know you're gonna understand everything. "'Don't pretend to me Jane', Patty went on, narrowing her eyes and staring back at me coldly." Lots of description of what Patty looks like. Let's think about movies, and how there are never any adjectives or adverbs, it's all in the dialogue, and we know exactly what kind of people our characters are in the movies. "'I can't imagine anyone else but you would have known about my tip money or where I put it, I know you're always worried,'" now she's speculating on motive, "'I know you're always worried about how you're going to come up with your half of the rent money. You took my hundred dollars, didn't you?'" 156 words, here we go. "When I got home from work that day, Patty was on the couch." "'My tip money's gone,' she said.'" "'Over a hundred dollars.'" "I just looked at her, Patty stared back at me." "'You took my hundred dollars, didn't you?'" Now it's a movie. Did anybody miss anything, that used to be there? Oh, this is another favorite, I love all of these things actually. So, really, if I'd had my choice of what I would be good at in this life, other than figure skating, I'd be a musician. I won't be too greedy, backup singer in the Bruce Springsteen band, a harmony singer perhaps in a country band, jazz musician. The closest that I come to feeling like musical performance is in the sound of my writing, and I read, I sit alone, there's lots of strange things that I do when I'm writing. I'm alone in a room and I'm reading, I'm sometimes pacing around as I do it. Sometimes I act out a scene, I take all the parts, and I kind of see like where, I'm blocking it all out, and very often, I read my work aloud and I strongly recommend that you do that and you hear the sound of your voice. One thing that will happen is you'll hear repetitions of words. You'll hear things that, sounds that just don't go together very well, but you'll also hear rhythm. The closest that I come probably to making music, although I do sort of pretend that my typing is a keyboard, is like hip hop artist. I am, I want you to feel that, kind of beat. So I'm going to begin with a piece of writing, not mine, sadly, that is one of my all time favorites, and the rhythm of this is so powerful that generations of babies, who don't even speak the English language, or any other language, have been calmed by the sound of these words, and I don't actually need to read them off the screen 'cause I know them so well, because I would be sometimes driving along some road in New Hampshire, and one of my children might be crying, and I would just recite, "in the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon, and there were three little bears, sitting on chairs, and two little kittens, and a pair of mittens, and a little toy house, and a young mouse, and a comb, and a brush, and a bowl full of mush, and a quiet old lady who was whispering, hush, goodnight room, goodnight moon, goodnight cow jumping over the moon, goodnight light and the red balloon." And you know the baby, who didn't even speak English would stop crying. It was my devastatingly powerful performance, of course, (audience laughing) but really, it was Margaret Wise Brown. It was the rhythm of those words, and I don't pretend to have ever written anything that accomplished that, but I'm gonna read a little paragraph from an essay of mine from years ago. This essay had to do with a time, it was fairly few years in to my divorce from my first husband, the father of my children, and I had, there was a time in my week that was always the hardest, which was Sunday night, driving back to the old house, the farmhouse where we used to live together, and where our children had been born, and picking them up from their weekend with their father, and on this one particular occasion, and I wasn't allowed into the house, it had been my house, but I wasn't allowed in, and this one particular Sunday night, my children's father wasn't there, and I got to come in to the house for the first time in many years, and my son, Willy, was very, very excited, and he's running all around, gathering up all his stuff, and I'm standing there alone in this kitchen, where I've probably made a thousand meals. I can look into the bedroom where the children were actually born, and the house is filled with memories everywhere and their sort of all coming up within me, and I'm evoking those in an essay, and suddenly I see, at that point, my children's father was a sheet rocker, he used a screwgun, metaphoric tool, and his screwgun was sitting on the counter. (audience laughing) "On the kitchen counter lay my ex-husband's screwgun. I picked it up and palmed it as if it were a 45." (audience laughing) "I put it," actually, today I wouldn't even say, "as if it were a 45," I'd know that you'd understand that palmed referred to a gun. "I picked it up and palmed it. I put it down again, picked it up and tucked it under my jacket." I wanted you to feel that hesitation, not just I picked it up and hesitated, but I wanted you to see it back and forth. "Picked it up and tucked it under my jacket and walked out the door. Then, like a person in a dream, I saw myself raising my hand the way my two sons have taught me." I wanted to suddenly evoke an image of sweetness and goodness in the middle of my very violent act that I'm about to commit. "The way my two sons have taught me when we're playing catch and I let that screwgun fly." I didn't contentiously say, only one-syllable words, but really, I wanted it almost like a machine gun. "I watched it land in a clump of snow-covered bushes. I walked back in to the house and called to my son. Time to go home." Long sentence, short sentence, rhythm. (snapping)