Monday, July 27, 2009

Writing Backyard Dialogue by Anita Higman

Please welcome multi-published and award-winning author Anita Higman with her thoughts on dialogue this Manuscript Monday:

Writing Backdoor Dialogue*

My family loves snappy movie dialogue, so we weave bits of it into our conversations. The more inventive we are at making it fit into our banter, the bigger the smiles all around. The snippets we choose are always poignant, witty, sardonic, or dazzlingly clever. Rarely do we take the time to memorize dialogue that's ordinary. In other words, it's never the mundane, repetitious things we say at home or the tedious yak I might produce when eating lunch with a friend. Readers want realistic dialogue, yes, but only to a point. Readers also want to be swept out of the droning, utilitarian chatter of everyday life, and given the opportunity to partake in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers kind of word-dance that leaves us a little breathless.

After writing a rough draft, checking dialogue for its effervescent levels is part of my editing phase. I always want to ask these questions. "Has the scene gone flat because the dialogue is boring? Is there a more interesting way for my characters to say this?" I call ho-hum writing, "front door writing" because it just walks right up, knocks on the door, and does exactly what we expect it to do—walk in the front door. But a more unexpected approach, one that sneaks up on us a bit, I call "backdoor writing." And of course, it relates to dialogue as well as writing in general. Here is an example of dialogue from my cozy mystery, Another Hour to Kill. This is the way the scene ended up in the book, and I'm hoping it shows a bit of "backdoor writing."

I looked outside. The Mexican feather grass near my porch dipped and swayed in the gusts like strands of hair. "As I'm sure you know, Houston isn't a very windy place. . .unless there's a storm coming."

"I like a good storm. They're heady and unpredictable." Vlad gazed at me. " ‘O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.' Shelley."

So, he was one of those guys who loved to quote famous dead poets. I fidgeted with my rose, starting to feel uncomfortable and wondering how many women he'd schmoozed into a senseless stupor over the years with his smooth hair and silvery tongue. Probably more than he could keep track of. That was the way with well-designed men. They were like Italian suits in a denim world.

Okay, that is a bit of conversation as well as inner dialogue. Here are some of my reasons for writing it that way.

1. The heroine, Bailey, mentions the storm, because she senses that something ominous is coming—something beyond mere atmospheric conditions. It makes for a moment of foreshadowing.

2. Vlad speaks of loving storms and their unpredictability. This statement reveals some of the wildness and impulsiveness in his nature.

3. I thought having Vlad quote the poet, Shelley, might be a more interesting way for him to comment on the approaching storm. I could have had Vlad say, "The wind sure is picking up outside. Gee, you're right. . .there's a storm coming." First of all, this approach wouldn't have worked since Vlad has a more formal way of speaking, but secondly, it wouldn't have been as interesting or as revealing as the poetry.

4. Also, the Shelley quote gives us more to chew on. It tells us that Vlad is a man who is either putting on airs or is cultured and likes sharing his love for poetry with others. The reader must decide who Vlad really is. And the quote gives us a bit of subtext dialogue, to reinforce the idea that a tempest is coming—one that may have nothing to do with the weather. In addition, the Shelley quote speaks of mystical elements such as ghosts and an enchanter. These are bits of Vlad's personality, so it not only keeps the scene within a gothic framework, but it holds some revelation for the reader concerning Vlad.

The last part of this passage from Another Hour to Kill is merely the internal thoughts of the heroine. Hopefully, I set up the dialogue well enough that it would allow me to make Bailey's head-talk more engaging, enlightening, and possibly amusing.

Novels have the potential to magically sweep us away from everyday life. Encountering this kind of enchanting word-dance in dialogue is something I long for whether I'm at the computer writing a novel or curled up in my den reading one.

Award-winning author, Anita Higman, has twenty-four books published (several coauthored) for adults and children, and she has been honored as a Barnes & Noble “Author of the Month” for Houston. Anita has a B.A. degree, combining speech communication, psychology, and art. Some of her favorite things are exotic teas, going to the movies, and all things Jane Austen. She’d love for you to visit her website at

1 comment:

  1. Anita,

    Thanks for being our guest writer today. I really enjoyed this article. It definitely has given me some things to think about and try in my own manuscript.


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