Friday, August 8, 2014

3 Craft of Writing: A Diatribe on Dialogue by Jennifer Longo

Jen Longo makes her YA debut this month with SIX FEET OVER IT, a story about a fourteen year old girl who works in her family run cemetery and funeral home. The book is said to be incredibly funny but deeply moving as well. As a debut author, Jen's post is brilliantly insightful.

A Diatribe on Dialogue by Jennifer Longo

“Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good anymore…I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

That’s a bit of Tom Stoppard from his beautiful play The Real Thing, a script about a playwright name Henri who is much like Stoppard himself. Here, he is being cranky about some terrible dialogue written by a lazy pretend-writer. My own education and background as a writer is in Playwriting which, when you get down to it, is essentially story telling primarily through dialogue. Well, and stage directions, but unless you’re Shaw or Shakespeare some theatre directors tend to get their back up when the writer tries to “Boss me around, don’t tell me to tell anyone to cross left behind the sofa! I’m not your puppet!”

But to the point – Dialogue. I don’t know about you, but as a reader and now a first-time novelist, I can forgive a lot of things if the dialogue is good, whereas books (and films) can get yelled at and abandoned when I hate the dialogue. Which sounds super judge-y, and yes taste is subjective but I think we all know there are times when dialogue has made us absolutely cringe. Especially when we’ve written it ourselves. *Slinks sheepishly away* And the thing is, it’s not that hard to write effective, beautiful, active dialogue. People, trust me. We can work together and figure it out. We can listen to our editors, get readers we trust, (No real friend would have let George Lucas get away with “Hold me, Like you did by the lake on Naboo.” My God. No actor could have worked with that. No one.)

Plus, remember our readers are our actors, and obviously not everyone is Laurence Olivier, so we must give dialogue that even we regular people can hear in our heads in a real way, the way the writer intends. It must be evident, not left to chance.

One of the biggest roadblocks I struggle with – and really, I think most writers do – is Ye Olde exposition. Good lord, what a mess it can make of perfectly crafted conversation. I actually remember the first time terrible exposition-laden dialogue turned me from a regular person into a twelve-year-old dialogue snob, and it wasn’t a book. In the mid 80’s there was this show on T.V. called first, I think, Valerie. It was about Valerie Harper and her family, her oldest son was played by Jason Bateman. Somewhere in the second season there were contract negotiation problems and Valerie was killed off, Sandy Duncan and her glass eye came in to be the Aunt and take over the family, and the show was re-named Valerie’s Family. Snap. So, the first episode without Valerie, Jason Bateman is walking among the crumbling ruins of the family house which has clearly burned down, and he finds a photograph of Valerie (ooh, double snap!) and he says, “Remember when mom died in that car crash?” and then he huddles over the frame and starts sobbing. My youthful sensibilities were rattled to the core, absolutely stunned that such a stupid, clunky line could make it’s way onto a show as masterful and socially relevant as Valerie’s Family. Which later was called, simply, The Hogans, and then it got cancelled. Probably for having such horrible dialogue.

But then not long after, I begged my mom to drive me to the Placerville Cinema 4 again and again so I could pay to see Terms Of Endearment a dozen times. I could not get enough of that thing. Oh God, Debra Winger grabbing her errant son’s face from her death bed to tell him, “Tommy be sweet. Be sweet.” Ahrghgh! All the times they didn’t speak, right when they shouldn’t. Perfect. No big goodbye, no big last speech of wisdom, none of that – just “Be sweet.”

The thing I think is so delicious about writing books is that we’ve got the luxury of being in character’s heads, we can write all the Stage Directions we want, because we are in charge. Playwriting is like being an architect, the play is the blueprint and the director is the general contractor actually bringing the thing to life. As authors, we get to be everyone – and must be. It’s a great responsibility to carefully choose what our characters will say, and maybe even more importantly, what they don’t say. I love, love as a reader, being trusted and not having things spelled out. When someone responds not with words, but with pointed action, that is so often the best. I absolutely die every time I read the Half Blood Prince scene (Spoiler Alert! Wait. Screw that. If this spoils anything for you you’re living in a cave and you won’t be reading a craft blog post anyway.) right after the Gryffindors win the Quidditch Cup, and Ginny’s just staring at him, and he at her, and Ron’s face is all, “Whatev!” and none of them says anything but then They Kiss. Love. It. (Harry and Ginny, not Harry and Ron. That’s a different book.)

In E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars The most beautiful dialogue mirrors of the mystery of the unfolding story, so simply, not at all heavy handed, and in only a few lines:

He picks a second peony and hands it to me. “For forgiveness, my dear.” I pat him on his hunched back. “Don’t pick any more, okay?”…. “Three flowers for you. You should have three.” He looks pitiful. He looks powerful.

Kills me. You get there’s something he knows, and wants to tell her, and she hears it really, but only through a fog still too thick to decipher but there’s something there inching toward her understanding…Agh! I love it so much! So subtle, so magical, no “Let me tell you the symbolism of some native plant species, Darling…”

Okay. So here are some tips I picked up in grad school and from my agent and editor and trusted readers and amazing speakers at conferences and books on writing…these are some of my favorite gems:

1. Listen. Listen, listen when we’re out in the world, in line for coffee, at dinner with our in-laws. Listen and take surreptitious notes. We all do it even when we don’t want to these days, what with people on their cell phones shouting about their recent colonoscopy or their cousin’s messy divorce; instead of getting annoyed, take out your little notebook or your phone voice recorder, lean close to the person, and whisper, “Sorry, could you repeat the part about the laxative not fully cleaning you out and they had to vacuum parts of your anal cavity? Thanks, just right into the mic…” People are awesome. They will spout out some gems, and you’ve got to collect them all. Even if it’s nothing relevant to your current project, you’ll use it eventually. Trust me!

2. Read play scripts. Remember, plays are almost all dialogue. Not film scripts, watching and reading those are totally different experiences, there’s nothing but stage direction in a film script and very little dialogue, despite my film examples. The plays the thing. Heh. If you’ve never read a play and Shakespeare or Marlowe aren’t your jam (though you may love it and no one writes better dialogue than those guys) there are a million amazing contemporary playwrights (Mary Zimmerman or Sam Shepard, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, John Patrick Shanley to name just the big ones) who all write dialogue that will set your brain on fire. Feel the rhythms, feel how the conversations make the story unwind and let tension grow, feel the quiet moments and the fighting, it’s a really unique experience. Full-length plays, when read straight through, can be consumed in like, an hour. Your local library has a ton. Or should unless they want a letter of complaint from Jenny.

3. The wonderful author Laini Taylor says, “Once you have a fully realized character with genuine motivation, plot happens naturally…and when your characters have actual things to talk about, dialogue comes naturally, easily.”

Laini’s not saying writing is easy, she’s saying when things are at stake, or one character is trying to get/give something from/to another character (even if it’s just information, the time of day, or something we don’t even know yet as in the E. Lockhart example) then yes, the dialogue can and will flow naturally. And when each character is fully realized and motivated, oh my gosh…each voice takes on a life of it’s own, and writing conversations becomes the super fun psychologically iffy game of Writer As Everyone. Which don’t deny it, we’ve all done in the shower when rehearing just how we’re going to argue with some jackass who has wronged us, or how we’ll ask someone to marry us or whatever. When we’re doing it well, and effectively, writing dialogue is fun.

So go forth, Writers! Be brave, let other people you trust read your stuff and listen to their comments, sift out the useful ones and don’t let your characters say dumb things. Writing is so hard. And also it is simple. And complicated. And easy. And impossible. And fun. And agonizing. It is Work, like anything else worth doing. And like words themselves, like the reader who will spend hours and hours with your story, the work deserves respect.

Hey. Remember that time you read a really long blog post instead of working on your book?

About The Author

Jennifer Longo’s debut novel Six Feet Over It will be in book stores, libraries, and your hands August 26th 2014 courtesy of Random House Books, Edited by Chelsea Eberly and represented by Melissa Sarver White at Folio Literary. A California native, Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Acting from San Francisco State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing For Theatre from Humboldt State University.

She is a two-time Irene Ryan Best Actor award recipient and a Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Best Full Length Script honoree for her play, Frozen. After years of acting, playwriting, working as a literary assistant at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, then as an elementary school librarian, Jennifer told the occasional story at San Francisco’s Porch Light Storytelling Series and decided at last to face her fear of prose and actually write some. A recent San Francisco transplant, Jennifer lives with her husband and daughter on an island near Seattle, Washington and her every hour is consumed by writing, running marathons, walking her kid to ballet class eleven thousand times each week and reading every book she can get her hands on.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads

About The Book

Home is where the bodies are buried.

Darkly humorous and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, Jennifer Longo’s YA debut about a girl stuck living in a cemetery will change the way you look at life, death, and love.

Leigh sells graves for her family-owned cemetery because her father is too lazy to look farther than the dinner table when searching for employees. Working the literal graveyard shift, she meets two kinds of customers:

Pre-Need: They know what’s up. They bought their graves a long time ago, before they needed them.

At Need: They are in shock, mourning a loved one’s unexpected death. Leigh avoids sponging their agony by focusing on things like guessing the headstone choice (mostly granite).

Sarcastic and smart, Leigh should be able to stand up to her family and quit. But her world’s been turned upside down by the sudden loss of her best friend and the appearance of Dario, the slightly-too-old-for-her grave digger. Surrounded by death, can Leigh move on, if moving on means it’s time to get a life?

Amazon | IndieBound | Goodreads


  1. Wow. She looks like a teenager and yet, what she says is right on. Such a valuable post. I will be (yet again) posting this link on my blog. Thanks for this. It is terrific.

  2. Great advice about writing dialogue. Thanks!

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