• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I’m Going Where The Sun Keeps Shining

“We should do something fun and healthy, like run the marathon in Paris.”

“I know this weekend is going to be something, even if it’s not the something I expect. You know what I mean?”

“I lost my shoe this morning and had to find a store at eight this morning that had flip flops. My apartment is so small, I don’t even know how I could lose it. Sheesh.”

“Have you eaten there?”

It’s easier than ever to listen in on other people’s conversations because everyone is walking around and talking on their fucking  phones. I’ve always loved eavesdropping, especially in restaurants. Sometimes I even have to be snapped back to attention from the diners I’m with because I’m too focused on the conversation in the next booth. I especially love it when things get heated and might possibly turn ugly. It’s almost orgasmic for me.

What’s this post about? Dialogue. That’s what I’m getting at. Do you really listen to how people speak? It sure ain’t in full sentences or even sentences that follow one another. How do you create effective dialogue in your books? It’s obviously different for non-fiction and fiction. So for the purposes of this blog, let’s talk about fiction since I trust all the non-fiction writers would never make up dialogue. How in fiction do you make people sound real? I was once told that dialogue should never advance the plot, only enhance it. Any thoughts, wisdom?

Better yet, if you leave a comment, what was the best dialogue you overheard today?

73 Responses

  1. between two 7 year-old girls in my backseat:

    “you know the new girl–”
    “the one at taylor’s table?”
    “yeah, the one who just moved here.”
    “i don’t remember her name.”
    “i know. she rides the bus home like me and sits behind me sometimes and today we sat together and she showed me her necklace and she told me that her mom and dad got divorced and then her mom married her boyfriend in the same week. can you believe that?”
    “that her mom had a boyfriend!”
    “like on Victorious?”

    this particular dialogue moved the new neighbor’s plot well enough along for me to think that i may have a new best friend living right down the street.

  2. at a job site:

    “That’s quite a sight: watching someone your size paint that section of wall with a little paint roller”

    “I prefer the word dainty”

    “To describe yourself or the roller?”

  3. Amyg and I obviously spend a lot of time kid-schlepping, ’cause here’s mine: (Three 12-year-old boys in backseat to soccer practice)
    “You got rejected 10 times?”
    “No, 6 didn’t say anything.”
    “4 then?”
    “You should talk. How many girls you ask out?”
    “‘Cause you’re afraid of rejection!”
    “Hey, you hear about the guy with the meat clever up by Alpenrose?”
    “Yeah, the one girl I asked out was on that bus. They made them do that emergency duck on the floor thing for like a half and hour!”

    See–they go from rejection to meat cleaver in one breath. Hm.

  4. Grinning 12-year-old boy leans closer to the tired woman sitting beside him and asks, “Isn’t life wonderful, Mom?! Isn’t it something?!” He made her smile.

  5. I can’t help it. I’m a mom, so this was my favorite quote of the day. I have a large garden/small farm, so my kids are often enslaved – I mean asked – to help out. This was heard today, between, Ben (12) and Finnegan (7), shortly after I harvested the edamame soybeans and assigned chores for the afternoon:

    Finn: Why do we need this many soybeans for winter? This is SO many! We can’t eat this many. I don’t even like edamame.
    Ben: Just do it. Mommy asked you to.
    Finn: Go away. Do YOUR job. [pause] Is Mommy giving you money for YOUR job?
    Ben: [No reply. He knows what’s good for him.]
    Finn: [He’s no fool] That’s not fair! YOU get money for the apples!
    Ben: [Suddenly very serious] Finn. Mommy TOLD you to do it. She’s cooking dinner and doing laundry and just got home from work, and no one pays her to do THAT.

    Lovely dialogue. I know, it’s not particularly thrilling or well-written, but come on. Mom-wise, it sings.

  6. Woman: “What kind of chicken sandwiches do you have?”
    *waitress lists the sandwiches very quickly*
    Woman: “Can I have the daily special on portobello mushrooms? I can’t have bread.”
    Bus boy (in passing): “That must be tough, bread’s like in everything. I eat bread at like every other meal”
    Woman: “I lost a hundred pounds.”
    Bus boy: “Whoa. Congratulations. Right? Not eating bread, that’s very hard.”

  7. met a guy, may long. started a band. played a gig last month. got another next month.

  8. This kind of speaks to what was alluded to in Betsy’s book, something about not quoting direct reality in fiction, because real-speak is boring.

    Some thoughts on capturing dialogue and quotes, according to the world of Jimmy Breslin:

    “Have people talk in a setting, and talk as humans actually do talk; Nearly all quotes in a newspaper are lies because there isn’t a human being alive who talks the way the papers quote them.
    “The television can be worse, because people talk like they’re squid when they’re being interviewed.”

  9. On the hiking trail a kid passing by said, “That dog is ugly–it looks like a wolf.”

    At dinner in a cavernous corporate chop joint a guy said, “my hat looks crazy but I’m not.”

    Have kept for years this line: “He don’t love you or he wouldn’t take you to no IHop.”

    I could go on and on. Hardly ever listen to the one I’m with so busy listening to one over there.

    Dialog when it sings is counterpoint and under current to the conflict in scene.

  10. I’m great at dialogue. Just check. It’s because I have been having imaginary conversations in my head, lo, these many years.

    I had a few words of negative discourse on a West Coast Male agent’s blog the other day. He thought you could introduce characters to have dialogue with just to advance the plot. Um. Really? “(It has to arise from the dynamic between the characters”, quote me.)

    Interesting dialogue heard today? “Why is her face getting so red?”
    “She’s trying to poop.”

  11. The best dialogue I overheard today was the two cops at the security checkpoint at the post office when I went to get my mail. The one was saying, “And then she tried to slip it through just like that, like she thought I wasn’t paying attention. A can of Coke Zero!” He was the cop operating the xray machine. The other one, the cop who stood by the magnetic scanner, said, “People are so stupid.”

    Yeah. Like this is news. The post office where I get my mail is on the ground floor of the local bankruptcy court. For years, no problem, anybody could go in and mail mail or pick up mail or look at the most wanted posters or the runaway kids who are hooking now posters–whatever, no problem. Then omagawd, the Hauptfuhrer at the Oberkommando fur Vaterland Sekuritate realized the post office was on the ground floor of a federal court building and anybody who wanted to could just walk right in with a dildo filled with C4 stuck up their butts and boom! pop go all the weasels. So they put in a security checkpoint so anybody going there now to check their mail or mail mail or apply for a passport so they can escape this nut-case of a country has to empty their pockets and take off their belts and show ID just to go to the post office. Oh, and put whatever they’re carrying on the conveyor belt so it can get xrayed, which means I have to be sure to remember to take my Swiss army knife knock-off out of my backpack and leave it at the office before I go get my mail because anyone at the Oberkommando fur Vaterland Sekuritate could tell you it’s a deadly weapon and I’m to be smacked down, shackled, and renditioned to Wallens Ridge for daring to carry such an item into the sacrosanct precincts of a bankruptcy court. Yeah, right. I could do more damage with the Bic Round-Stic that’s also in my backpack, or for that matter with my belt or my necktie or my hands, for god’s sake. And as for a C4-filled dildo stuck up the butt, I don’t know how one might be detonated but I do not believe the xray machine and the magnetic scanner and the two cops would be able to do much about it and anyway, a dedicated suicide bomber wouldn’t even have to go past the checkpoint to make an unmistakeable statement.

    I know we’re coming hard up on the tenth birthday of the dope-slap that knocked America into its most serious and dangerous bout with bloodthirsty silly, and I don’t want to minimize the horrors of what happened in NYC that day, I used to live there and I worked in the financial district and I went to the Trade Center regularly and when those planes hit and those towers burned and fell and those 3000 people died it was like I had been kicked in the gut and I wanted to kill everyone from the Pillars of Hercules to the Straits of Malacca, but when I go to get my mail these days and negotiate the partial strip search, I don’t feel one damned bit safer than I did a month ago when to get to the post office all I had to do was go to the post office.

    I’m sorry, what was the question?

    • Why not just go get your mail at a different, less-of-a-hassle post office where all you need deal with are the workers who do the slow shuffle or put mail in the wrong boxes? .

    • If you really want to keep your blood pressure at boil AND hear outrageous dialogue, go to an airport and stand near some TSA staff at the end of their shift.

  12. The best dialogue I heard all day was in German and I didn’t understand a word of it. 2 girls sitting next to me in Washington Square Park. They sounded eloquent to me, at least that was my fantasy.

    • PS: Betsy, first I’ve heard that dialogue shouldn’t advance the plot. It reminds me of what Stephen Sondheim said about songs in modern musicals: they should always advance the plot. I decided to go through my own novel and think about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my dialogue does advance the plot, and I like that, but I’ve been trained in the theater, where the dialogue IS the plot. Personally, I find it boring when the conversation in a scene serves no real purpose. I like the action to continually move forward. Either way, good food for thought.

      • Agree.

      • Dude, who the fuck told you dialogue shouldn’t advance the plot? The only time I could back that blanket statement would be in a first draft. By the time you’re done, EVERYTHING should be advancing the plot. Everything. Including your epigraphs and your acknowledgements.

      • Shanna, dudess and goddess, I agree with you. I was referriing to something Betsy said above.

      • Yeah, I was actually directing that at Betsy, but I accidentally slipped it in under your post.

      • I did not mean to criticize the use of dialogue to advance a plot. Of course it should. The instance I was so poorly describing was introducing new characters to talk about stuff that the plot needed to be sort of filled in. Deus ex machina. A guy running out onto the stage to say, “Meanwhile back at the ranch.”

      • Virginia, when I was doing revisions with an agent, he advised me to add some dialogue in the opening chapters to move them along more quickly. I forgot about this until now. I actually introduced a new minor character to help me do this. I think it worked and the agent liked what I did.

  13. Overheard in sushi place: “Would you like me to sell my body to pay for the repairs to your car? I. Don’t. Have. Any. Money.”

  14. After asking where to find party planning books in the library where I work: “I want the reception to be real fuckin’ classy and shit.”

  15. Overheard in line at the deli this morning:

    “Are you shittin’ me?”
    “Hope not. Sounds messy.”
    “Man, why you gotta be like that before coffee?”

  16. I saw two seven year olds today. Here’s some shit they didn’t say.

    She said, you understand me. We’ve always been able to talk.
    He has never understood her: they have never talked, not in any even-close-to-significant way. Richard said this to her.
    See? she said. That’s talking. We’re talking now.
    You bring out the depraved in me, he told her.
    It didn’t have far to travel, she said.
    Greg walked up then. He said, I can tell by her look she’s coming on to you.
    Yet you interrupt.
    Biologically programmed, Greg said. I don’t care if she fucks whoever but if I see it about to happen I’m forced to rip your throat out with my teeth.
    I thought you did that years ago, Richard said.

    Richard said to J.D., what’s your actual name?
    Chris? Why do they call you J.D.?
    J.D. looked at him, then away. He started fooling with his sneakers. Man you don’t know nothing.
    No, really, what’s it mean?
    Ju-vee-nile-dee-ling-quint, J.D. finally said.

    She called him. She said, Ezekiel’s written an autobiography, it’s called The Disappearing Burglar.
    So it’s about you, he said.
    Very funny. That would be your view of me, not his.

    What was it her dead dad did again?

    You get your underwear at Target? Helen said.
    Anna looked down over her breasts to her underwear. Yeah, she said. Does it look bad? I don’t think it looks bad.
    No I like it, Helen said. But I mean, Target.
    They’re good, Anna said. Don’t be so bourgeois. The idea of spending $78 for a pair of panties makes me nuts. Even to think about.

  17. Overheard on a train last weekend (translated from the French):

    Lady 1: Sorry about that, Ma’am!
    Lady 2: That’s all right. She must smell my dogs.
    Lady 1: How many do you have?
    Lady 2: Two, I have two. Indispensable. I can’t imagine life without my dogs.
    Lady 1: Oh, I know. And when one dies, it’s not like one can replace the other.
    Lady 2: Oh, the death of a dog, terrible. It’s terrible.
    Lady 1: I go with her everywhere. In fact, it’s her first time on a train.
    Lady 2: These days, you can go anywhere with your dogs. More and more places are accepting them.
    Lady 1: Even hotels.
    Lady 2: Of course! I mean, if you think I’m going to go on vacation without my dogs, no thank you. And, you know, it’s always before the summer that the Humane Society gets all of these people coming in, saying, ‘Oh, you’ll have to take him because he’s incontinent’ but they know that the real reason is because the family found an amazing deal to Morocco, and dogs aren’t allowed in the hotel. So they bring the dog in and then they can go off and eat their grated carrots and hang around other French people in Morocco.
    Lady 1: Because you can’t bring your dogs there.
    Lady 2: Well, no, it’s the not the same culture.

  18. In a random conversation:
    “I met Donald Trump at this party..”
    “How could yous stand to look at that comb-over?”
    “I know, seriously? He’s got to be hiding some kind of animal under there.”

  19. Talking with my 8 year old at dinner.

    “Any new kids in your class?”
    “Mmhmm. One boy. He’s either from Africa or Smithtown.”
    “What? You mean Capetown?”
    “Yes!That’s it! He’s from Caketown!”

  20. “It’s not good enough to ‘think’ you’re right. You must ‘be’ right.”

  21. Cashier at Starbucks to the man in front of me (this particular cashier is manic):
    “Batman, Superman or Spiderman?”
    “Which one?”
    “Uh, Batman?”
    “Another one! Okay, okay, Christian Bale or Bruce Wayne?”
    (Customer confident now) “Bruce Wayne.”
    I laugh and Manic Cashier turns to me in a snap. The other customer is waving his money to pay and being ignored.
    “What about you? Batman, Super…”
    “Christian Ba…why are firetruck sirens so deafening. I’m losing my hearing…” He continues on words spewing forth in tangentially related ways until he stops mid sentence, takes the man’s money, then mine, all the while staring only at me not blinking. I fill up my coffee with milk and sugar, then turn one last time before I leave. He’s looking right through me. I don’t frighten easily, but man, there is something not right about that guy.

  22. “I thought I was 28 weeks along, but my obstetrician said I was at 30 weeks. Somehow I lost a couple of weeks.”
    -my friend Becca after dropping her first grader off and standing outside the school holding the hand of her nearly 4 year old son and clutching above her beautiful big round belly the two year girl she babysits. I have no idea how she could lose track of time…

  23. Yes, my pet peeve is when writers use “As you know, Bob…” dialogue as an info dump or to explain events to the reader. Aside from the glaring, frustrating cases, it can be surprisingly easy to let this sneak into your dialogue in a subtle way. I’m constantly on the lookout to make sure my dialogue isn’t trying to do too much heavy lifting.

    I love love love to eavesdrop and then write the juicy stuff down. Once, in a cafe, I essentially transcribed an entire conversation that could have had legal consequences. (Discuss that shit in PRIVATE, people.) But here are a few of my favorites:

    “I always thought the brain was the most fascinating part of the body, but then I thought: Look who’s telling me this?”

    Guy #1: “The best minds of our generation are devoted to making people click on ads.”
    Guy #2: “Exactly. If they were using their brains for the right thing, they’d be designing the visuals and text.”

  24. Thirty seconds ago, from the big bug in the office across the hall:

    “I love a check-signing day. Makes me feel useful.”

  25. Interesting! I have to cultivate my eavestopping ears! I seem to drift along in a subtle silent cloud.

  26. One of the last things I want to do with dialogue in my stories is try to make people sound real. I work to make the story work, whatever it takes. If I can fool the reader into believing without a second thought that sufficiently real people are speaking in a sufficiently believable way, that’s, well… sufficient. If I dropped dialogue into my stories that precisely imitated the way most people speak, with all the “umms” and “ahhs” and “likes” and “you knows” and fragments and confusions, the stories would grind to a halt. A little of that can be useful in the right context, but too much of it, or in the wrong context, and it can be a tale-killer.

  27. My 8 year old and his father.

    “CJ has God of War.”
    “There’s no naked girls in it.”
    “Oh yeah? How would you know? Does CJ have everything? Does he have a Jaquar?”
    8 year old pauses and frowns.”No just the one black dog, I think.”

  28. A, this thread makes me think it might be worth having kids just for the material. And B, I always just speak my dialog out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound ridiculous when spoken.

    • It’s the COST of children that urge parents to focus on those brief moments of interesting dialogue. I see it as my small reward for operating the Bank of Mom these many years.

  29. I don’t have kids, but I do get to enjoy the bits that are shouted out during board games or Dungeons & Dragons.

    “I say we kill them all and take their gear. Dibs on the sword.”

  30. My six year old is in the back seat of the car as we are driving down the highway. She is kicking my seat.
    “Stop kicking me.”
    kick, kick, kick
    “If you don’t stop kicking my seat, I’m going to stop the car and spank you!” (This from the child welfare worker …)
    A moment of silence and then she says, “What’s the point if I like it?”

  31. A German grandmother at the bus stop, complaining that her neighbor who is Japanese with two little girls has never noticed her granddaughter before. My granddaughter could have taught her children English all these years. She even knows Japanese from the t.v. She says Ne Hao all the time.” Assumptions about the Japanese children aside, isn’t that hello in Chinese?

  32. At school pick up, a mum had had enough of her two kids messing around – teasing and nudging each other, hanging off the mum etc – we all know the drill.

    Finally the mum turns around and hisses “That’s it. You’ve both lost ALL of your credits.”

    Her son, aged 7 doesn’t bat an eye.”We don’t have any credits left anyway.”

    To the mum’s credit, she roared laughing along with the rest of us .

  33. While we’re on the subject – check this out: http://www.wimp.com/twobots

    We could be replaced.

  34. Another kid story. When I brought my newborn daughter home from the hospital I realized that we were letting our not quite three year old son watch too much TV. I was sitting on the sofa holding the baby. Rob climbed up next to us with a book in his hand. “I’m going to read you a story, Sarah, and it’s brought to you by General Foods.”

  35. The only dialogue I overheard today
    Were the voices inside my head.
    Shame on you, how dare you, sit down and shut up,
    Is all that I’m sure they said.

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