I think most of you know I am a classically trained musician. The fact I see and hear rhythm in the written word is a carryover from the hours and hours spent studying rhythm, counterpoint, dynamics, tempo and all of the things which transform words and music into art.
In opera (Don’t run away screaming. Opera is our friend.) the portions which are not arias or ensemble pieces are called recitativo – a style of delivery in which the singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech. It is still sung. There is still music with the words. The music may be sparse - recitativo secco ("dry", accompanied only by continuo) or it may be quite lovely, full and reflect what is being sung - recitativo accompagnato (using orchestra.) This is the main difference between opera and musicals.
What does all of this have to do with dialogue? Quite a bit actually. In going over judges’ sheets from the contests I’ve entered over the years, I’ve discovered the one thing I actually do pretty well is dialogue. And here are some of the things I think have helped me tremendously.
For me, words have always had a musical rhythm to them. When I write a long passage of dialogue, I read it out loud. If I stumble, if the words don’t flow, then I’ve done something wrong. I read it again, find the word I stumbled on and try to find another word that completes the rhythm.
“Yes, well were I luckier in love she would have enjoyed my favors long enough to complete the roof.”
“If you were truly lucky she would die and leave you everything.”
Cain snorted. “That will never happen. I have it on the best authority she intends to take everything she holds most dear with her.”
“Everything?” Barclay glanced in the general direction of Cain’s groin.
“Why haven’t I fired you?”
“You can’t pay my severance.”
“I knew there was a good reason.”
This exchange has a give and take rhythm between the characters. It has minimal tags, but you get the relationship between these two men. And a lot of it has to do with the rhythm of the exchange, especially those last three lines.
This one is easy. Male characters, especially alpha males, speak in short sentences. They use strong verbs. They are opinionated. They are definite. And the only time they stammer or get tongue-tied is when the heroine makes them that way.
Female characters speak in longer sentences. They explain more, usually because the hero is kind of dense. Their language is more creative, more emotional (not overly so, I hate mushy, whiny heroines!) and the only time they stammer or get tongue-tied is when the hero ticks them off.
Most important, the dialogue must match your hero or heroine’s character. If you know your characters really well you will discover they have patterns of speech. Stick to those. You created them when you created the character and they really help!
When you read through you dialogue and something appears wrong, it may be you’ve put words in their mouths they would never say. They hate it when you do that. And sometimes they get so ticked they stop talking. This is bad.
STUDY, BABY, STUDY!!
This is the fun part! If you want examples of great dialogue put on your favorite DVD and pay attention to the dialogue. See if you can catch the rhythm of it. Better yet, read some of your favorite books – the ones where the dialogue makes you laugh or cry. What kind of tags were used, if any? What patterns of speech?
Julia Quinn has done a workshop on dialogue at RWA Nationals a couple of times. If you can, attend the workshop or listen to it on the CD’s. It is a marvel. Read any of her books, especially the Bridgerton series, and you will see exactly what she is talking about.
Do any of you have any tricks or methods you use to keep your dialogue fresh? Any masters of dialogue you want to recommend in either films or novels?