In an effort to improve my dialogue-writing skills, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the people I see around me. I tend to stick to lengthy narratives with little dialogue because dialogue doesn’t come all that naturally to me. Didn’t use to be that way, though. I used to write whole plays in afternoons, back when I was heavily involved in theatre. I LOVED dialogue then, and would study my friends verbal and physical idiosyncrasies as they spoke to one another, and to me.
On Thursday I was in the post office, for the second time that day, and standing off to the right of the (long) queue was a middle-aged woman, red with frustration, whisper-hissing into a cell phone. From her conversation and actions I gathered that her daughter was getting married, and as the mother of the bride she had been delegated to buying stamps for the wedding invitations. She wasn’t happy:
“I’m so livid right now…all they have in the 88 cent stamp are butterflies and veterans. They DO have wedding bells and flowers in the 44 cents ones but you don’t want two stamps on your invitations do you?” (pauses, paces, listens, puffs lips out and back in again, scratches her hair under her white baseball cap) “No, I don’t think so. Butterflies? Okay, I’ll get you the butterflies.”
The woman gave a great sigh, put her cell phone in her purse, and returned to her place at the back of the line.
I know it’s not that interesting, or that long, but what I love about the study of every day conversations is how telling they are about a person’s (or character’s) life, personality, and current situation. Just by a smattering of sentences, the overhearing of one side of a phone conversation, I can tell that this woman’s daughter is getting married, that she is getting stressed over the little details, and that her daughter (who is probably the calmer of the two) is totally fine with butterfly stamps. Oh, and that a “veteran stamp” might send the wrong message to invited guests.
I like this, because I like people. Isn’t being a writer wonderful? You get to people watch, and call it character study.
Two of my favorite playwrights, Tony Kushner and Neil Simon, have perfected the art of dialogue. Their plays are just as fun to read as they are to watch live (or on film).