Join Jessica Brody for an in-depth discussion in this video Characterizing dialogue (advanced), part of The Foundations of Fiction.
(soft music) - So you want to delve a little deeper into writing dynamic dialogue. - Well that's what these following advance lectures are all about. - In the last few lectures of this section, we talked about some of the fundamental dos and don'ts regarding dialogue, such as not being too fake or too realistic. - As well as some hints and tips about how to vary the way you write dialogue.
- In this lecture we're going to talk about characterizing dialogue. - This might sound complicated, but don't worry. It isn't. All we really mean by characterizing dialogue is building great characters through what they say and making dialogue unique to each of your characters. - In many ways, we are what we say. People know who we are by the things we tell them or by what we contribute to conversations. - The same is true of characters in fiction. We learn a lot about characters from descriptions of their appearance, their thoughts, and their actions, but we also learn a great deal about them by what they say.
- Dialogue is not just a vehicle for telling a story, though. - It's also a crucial element for building unique and believable characters. - [Joanne] Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, two writing teachers who have written a great book on writing fiction, say this, "A few lines of good dialogue "can reveal more about your characters "than an entire page of description." - [Jessica] If I write a character who says something like you going to make me? You and who else? That character is going to be very different from a character who says, oh, would you mind terribly, but, ah, would you please pass me the butter? - [Joanne] I think I'd rather be friends with the second one.
- Yeah, I know. Me, too. But you only have to look at some of your favorite books and short stories to see how dialogue is used to build and show character. - I know, I know. I'm always going back to my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but can we please read some of the very first chapter? Please? - Okay, go ahead. - [Joanne] So in this first chapter, we meet the parents of the main character, Lizzy Bennet. The narrator barely describes them, but what the mother and father say really reveals who they are. Mrs. Bennet is very excited because some rich, young man, Mr. Bingley, has just moved to town, and she's hoping she could marry him off to one of her daughters.
Mrs. Bennet really wants her husband, Mr. Bennet, to go and introduce himself to this new man in town, and it's pretty clear Mr. Bennet isn't too keen on the idea. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not. - [Jessica] I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you. And I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls, though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy. - [Joanne] I desire you will do no such thing.
Lizzy is not a bit better than the others, and I'm sure she's not half so handsome as Jane nor half so good humored as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference. - [Jessica] They have none of them much to be recommended them, replied he. They are all silly and ignorant like other girls, but Lizzy has something more of a quickness than her sisters. - [Joanne] Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves. - [Jessica] You mistake me, my dear.
I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these 20 years at least. I love this. Nowhere in the passage does it say Mrs. Bennet was very pushy and anxious about marrying off her daughters, but we really get the impression from what she says to her husband. - [Joanne] Yes, and nowhere in the passage does it say Mr. Bennet liked to tease his wife when she was getting herself all worked up. Instead, we see him making jokes, for example about her her nerves being his old friends.
- But it's not just in old classics like Pride and Prejudice where we can find great examples of dialogue characterization, right? - Of course not. In fact, one of my favorite examples of this in action is from the kids' book Matilda by Roald Dahl. - [Jessica] I remember that book. I used to love it when I was a kid. - [Joanne] Here's the first conversation or dialogue of the entire book. It's between Matilda, who is only three years old at the time, and her father, Mr. Wormwood. - [Jessica] Daddy, do you think you could buy me a book? - [Joanne] A book? What do you want a flaming book for? - [Jessica] To read, daddy? - [Joanne] What's wrong with the telly, for heaven's sake? We've got a lovely telly with a 12 inch screen, and now you come asking for a book.
You're getting spoiled, my girl. - [Jessica] Just from this snippet of dialogue, you instantly understand who Mr. Wormwood is and his relationship with his daughter. - [Joanne] You get a sense of how he talks. A flaming book. And how he thinks. He's a pretty ridiculous guy. - [Jessica] Not to mention a pretty questionable parent. - [Joanne] The passage shows how beautifully an author can evoke and build a character through dialogue. - Or how about this fun piece of dialogue from the New York Times' bestselling novel Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. In this snippet, Madeline, one of the main characters, is explaining the politics of the elementary school to two new parents, Jane and Celeste, the other two main characters.
See what you can pick up about Madeline's character just from her dialogue. So, school politics, girls, Madeline said as she carefully replaced the glass in the box. We'll start at the top with the Blond Bobs. The Blond Bobs? Celeste squinted as if there were going to be a test afterward. The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob, said Madeline. She demonstrated the required haircut with her hand. It's like a bylaw. Jane chortled, a dry little chuckle, and Madeline found herself desperate to make her laugh again.
It shouldn't be peroxide blond, obviously. It should be expensive blond, and then you get it cut in that sort of mum haircut where it's like a helmet. - [Joanne] I immediately get a sense of who Madeline is from this passage. She's a little bossy, little pushy kind of know-it-all, and she likes to take people under her wing. - [Jessica] Right, like the way she totally takes control of the situation and calls the other two women girls. - [Joanne] And how she has a kind of mocking nickname for the mothers who are in the PTA, the Blond Bobs. - [Jessica] Madeline is one of my favorite characters in this book, and this small snippet of dialogue is a great characterization of her.
(energetic music) - So now it's your turn to try characterizing through dialogue. - For this prompt, which we are calling Guess Who's Talking, the first step is to pick a character from the following list. - [Joanne] Now pick a character from the next list. The two characters don't necessarily make sense. In other words, they can be two very unlikely conversation partners.
In fact, it could make the conversation very funny and interesting. - [Jessica] Imagine your two characters are both at a wedding or a party and they get to talking. You can decide about what. - [Joanne] But here's the challenge. You are not allowed to use any tags or physical descriptions in the scene. - [Jessica] In other words, the dialogue should read almost like a play except, unlike with a play where lines of dialogue always start with a character's name, you are not allowed to do this either. - [Joanne] In short, all we want you to write are the character's lines of dialogue. Nothing else.
Zilch. Nada. - [Jessica] In these lines of dialogue, you should make your two people distinguishable through their speech. - [Joanne] In other words, characterize their dialogue. Try and think of little phrases that each might use, and the kind of things they might be drawn to talk about. When you're done, perhaps get someone else to read it and see if they can tell the two characters apart. - I think I have an idea of what I'm going to do. Jo? - Me, too. - Now set your timers for 10 minutes and get writing. - We'll see you in the next mini lecture where we'll read our prompts.
Or, as always, feel free to skip it. - See you soon.
- Creating memorable characters
- Writing dialogue
- Selecting a point of view
- Using an unreliable narrator
- Narrative style
- Building a setting
- Mood, atmosphere, and emotion
- Crafting a plot, from the setup to the resolution