Friday, March 15, 2013

Chit chat, Action beats, and Beauty and the Beast

Yeah, yeah I know I'm a bad blogger.

Life's been crazy.  Still, no excuse.  So let's just jump in to our post, shall we?

Today we are going to talk about dialogue!

Dialogue in movies and screenplays can be a lot of fun, but it has some rules.  However, these rules, once they become habit, make writing dialogue even more fun.  Sometimes, I break these rules, but I'm still learning.

Rule number ONE!

No CHIT CHAT!  Chit Chat is the everyday, mundane conversations we have every single day.  Stuff like,

"Hey, how's it going?"
"Fine, how are you?"
"I'm doing good."
"Weather's awfully nice."
"Oh yeah.  Hope it doesn't rain."

Not much character development, conflict, or action there, huh?  Life as we know it could not exist without this small talk.  That would probably be a bad thing.  After all, all good friendships made after you turn ten probably began with this sort of small talk.  But in novels, no conflict=boredom.  So you leave out the chit chat.

I had issues with this rule at first because I thought dialogue was supposed to be realistic.  And chit chat is realistic.  True, but it's boring.  Sometimes, accuracy and real-to-lifeness must be sacrificed for the sake of the story.  And that's a good thing.  Books are not supposed to be realistic.  They are supposed to imitate real life, but in an exciting and compelling way.  This took me awhile to realize, but once I did, it really improved my dialogue.   People don't pick up a book to get real life.  They get enough of that in, guess what, real life!

Rule Number TWO!

'Said' is awesome!

Teachers try to brainwash you as a first grader into believing that 'said' is a no-no word. (My mom never did...but I've heard rumors...:P)  In fact, it is the opposite.  'Said' and 'says' are such common words, readers don't even notice them when they read.  They simple see the name of the character beside the word 'said' and move on.  This is a good thing.  You don't want the reader pausing in the illusion of a world you have created because of an 'interesting' word liked "cajoled" or "expostulated."  One every now and then, if it is ABSOLUTELY the best way to describe what the character is doing, is okay.  But I try to keep it to a minimum.

This is one of the harder ones for me to keep.  In 'Ember Flame', I became obsessed with the word 'quipped.'  Hey, it's an awesome word!  You sound like a baby chick when you say it!  Quip, quipped!  But, sadly, quipped can be awesome all day long but it is distracting.  So, with great pain, I have had to change many a "quipped" to a more common word.

The words that I say are pretty much invisible to a reader are:

said, replied, asked, shouted, whispered, laughed, cried, remarked, and explained.  Anything else, I would try hard to find a "Rule Number Three" that would work.  If you can't, it's okay to occasionally use a funky verb.  But try hard not too.

Rule Number THREE!

Use Action and Thought Beats!

Action beats are when you have dialogue that is followed by the character doing an action.  Here is an example from "Gone With the Wind."

She scowled and her temper came back.  "You will get out of this buggy this time, or I will hit you with the whip.  I don't know why I put up with you, why I try to be nice to you.  You have no manners.  You have no morals.  You are nothing but a...well, get out.  I mean it."  But when he had climbed down and untied his horse from the back of the buggy and stood in the twilight road, grinning tantalizingly at her, she could not smother her own grin as she drove off.

There are no "saids" or "replied" or "expostulated."  And doesn't Scarlett's actions help paint a picture about what is happening?  Also, Margaret Mitchell uses zero exclamation points, yet I still get the feeling that Scarlett is yelling at Rhett.

Thought beats are when the character thinks something before speaking.  Here is a great example of thought and action beats from "To Darkness Fled" by Jill Williamson.  (Mild spoilers for those who have not read the book.)

Achan's breath caught.  Sparrow was a her?  "I thought Polk..."

Sparrow's bottom lip protruded again, "He put me in the sideboard then went to kill you."  Her voice cracked, morphing back into that keening whine.

"No, now...don't do that.  Don't cry."  A girl.  A woman.  All this time?  "Blazes!  Why?"

"Achan."  Sir Gavin crossed to Sparrow's side.  "We saw no reason to tell you."

"You knew.  This is the big secret.  Why Sparrow sneaks off in the woods, bathes in your room, cleans his teeth.  Her teeth."  Achan linked his fingers and set his hands on his head.  What was he supposed to do with this information?
'To Darkness Fled' is written in third person limited POV.  Notice how the only thought beats belong to Achan, the POV character.  Gavin and Sparrow both speak, but we, along with Achan, can only guess at their thoughts by their actions.

And there you have it!  Three basic rules for writing good dialogue.  Here is an example of all of them at work using a scene from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."

The scene takes place right after the "Belle" song.  Gaston approaches Belle to flirt with her.  The scene actually ends with Belle running off to her home to help her father, but to keep things simple, I'm going to end it right before the three blonde girls start speaking.  That will keep it simply between Belle and Gaston.

Now, if this were in real life, they would probably start with chit chat.  It could maybe be skipped, Gaston being the conceited jerk that he is, but it probably would not have been.  Here is the actual dialogue from the scene given as simple as possible.

Gaston:  "Good morning, Belle."
Belle:  "Bonjour Gaston."
(Gaston snatches book)
Belle:  "Gaston, can I have my book please?"
Gaston:  "How can you read this, there is no pictures."
Belle:  "Well some people use their imagination."
Gaston:  "It's about time you got your head out of those books and paid attention to more important things.  Like me.  The whole town is talking about it.  It's not right for a woman to read.  Soon she starts getting ideas...thinking..."
Belle: "Gaston, you are positively primeval."
Gaston:  "Why thank you Belle.  Say, lets take a walk over to the tavern, take a look at my trophies."
Belle:  "Maybe some other time."

Okay, it's not horrible.  But you don't really get to know the character well with this.  Belle seems extremely passive, perhaps even foolish or timid, based on this dialogue.  Gaston is still conceited and a jerk, but certainly not to the extent he seems in the movie from this scene.

One thing I notice from this dialogue is how skillfully the writer avoided chit chat and still made it realistic.  From this dialogue, Gaston cut the chit chat short with action.  He snatched her book.  In the next section, it will show that it was really Belle who cut the chit chat short.  Either way, it was brilliantly done.

Here is the dialogue with only dialogue tags and basic actions.

"Good morning, Belle."
Continuing to walk, Belle said, "Bonjour Gaston."
Gaston snatched the book from her hands.
"Gaston, can I have my book please?"  Belle asked.
"How can you read this.  There is no pictures!"  Gaston said, thumbing through the pages.
Belle replied, "Well, some people use their imaginations."
Gaston tossed the book over his shoulder.  Belle dove for it.  "It's about time you got your head out of those books and paid attention to more important things.  Like me."
Belle gently wiped the mud off of the book with her apron.
Gaston continued, "It's not right for a woman to read.  Soon she starts getting ideas...thinking..."
"Gaston, you are positively primeval,"  Belle replied.
Gaston laughed, "Why thank you Belle.  Say, let's take a walk over to the tavern, have a look at my trophies."
Belle held back, "Maybe some other time."

Okay, this is better.  We still don't get a good picture of their personalities.  We get that Belle likes books.  And we get that she is not interested in Gaston.  But it could still be better.  Let's try adding more detailed action and thoughts.  I'm going to write this in Belle's point of view.

Belle walked along the trodden path in slow, easy steps.  Everything about her was slow, from the slight swish of her ponytail to the light swinging of her free arm.  However, her eyes scanned the book she held like bees for nectar.  Finally, she found the paragraph.  Her eyes slowed to match the rhythm of her dress as she focused on her favorite scene.

The princess glanced at the boy beside her, wishing desperately that he had been born a prince, or she a pauper.  He tossed her a lopsided grin and ran his fingers through the grooves in the stones.  Leaning beside her, he glanced into the well.  "Are you sure about that?"

"Of course I'm sure,"  The princess said decidedly.  "I can't marry you.  I'm a princess.  I have to marry a prince."  She blinked back tears and turned away, hoping Philip did not see her.  Stupid fairies!

The boy looked back up at her and chuckled.  She turned suddenly, her face pink with tears and anger.  Why was he laughing at her?  "What is so funny?"

"There's something I should tell you.  It's that..." "Good morning, Belle,"

Belle stifled the groan rising in her throat.  Here came charming, chivalrous Prince Philip himself.  Belle forced herself to quicken her pace, keeping her gaze locked on the book.  "Bonjour Gaston."  She hoped he would, for once, take a hint and leave her alone.

For a moment, she thought he had.  That is, until her book flew out of her hands.

Belle huffed and spun around, placing her hands on her hips.  She counted to three to calm herself before carefully replying, "Gaston.  Can I have my book please?"

She sighed as Gaston flipped through her precious book with his dirty, grubby fingers.  He glanced at her and smirked, "How can you read this?  There's no pictures!"

Was he trying to be cute?  Belle choked down the retort rising in her throat.  "Well, some people use their imagination," she remarked dryly.

Gaston slapped the book shut and threw it over his shoulders.  Belle gasped as it landed in a pile of mud.  She dove for it, scooping it into her lap before the pages could soak.  The rude, conceited, brainless, boorish....!

Wait.  He was saying something now.  She decided to listen, trying to find a reason to be politely rude to him.

"...more important things.  Like me."    

Oh, she could be rude with that.  Just not politely rude.  She arched her back, keeping her face away from him.  She attacked the book with her apron, though it was already clean.  He would not make her stoop to his level.  She would not be rude.

Gaston continued, waving his arms in the air dramatically as he spoke, "The whole town is talking about it!  It's not right for a woman to read.  Soon she starts getting ideas...thinking..."

Belle stood and faced him.  Her anger vanished and left her with an amusing thought.  How could someone so stupid actually exist in the world?  With a slight laugh, she replied, "Gaston, you are positively primeval."

She immediately regretted the laugh when Gaston joined her.  She immediately wanted to knock herself out cold with the book when he wrapped his big, hulking arm around her shoulders.  "Why thank you Belle!"  He laughed again, as if she had said something really funny.  He began shoving her forward, sloshing her dress through the wet mud, "Say let's go take a walk over to the tavern, have a look at my trophies."

Belle bristled and pushed against his enormous arm.  Tavern?  Seriously?  She glanced at her book longingly.  Philip took Aurora to that romantic well...  "Maybe some other time."    


It ain't perfect, but it's fairly interesting, don't you think?  Funny to think this entire scene takes up only a few seconds in the movie, yet I could get all these feelings and thoughts just from the dialogue.  Kudos to the actors to inflecting the voices perfectly.  And to the animators for the perfect facial expressions.

To summarize, every scene in your novel needs to evoke some sort of emotion.  No emotion means the reader is bored or doesn't care.  Every dialogue needs to have conflict, needs to move the plot, and needs to show character.  The excerpt above has conflict.  (Gaston wants to marry Belle.  Belle does not want to marry Gaston.  Gaston tries winning over Belle.  Belle is less than impressed.)  The excerpt moves the plot.  (Belle's rebuffs will eventually cause Gaston to try and force Belle to marry him, which in turn will make him try to kill Beast.)  And it shows character.  (Gaston thinks of no one but himself.  Belle is different from the other girls her age because she knows Gaston's character and is smart enough to run from it.)

Hope you found this helpful!  I try to remember these three rules whenever I write dialogue, and it really helps me.


  1. Love this post! Good reminders for me.

  2. Thank you! Since I don't have a Facebook, I'll reply to your "A-Z Help Wanted" post here and hope you see it. :P

    I would really like to know what you think of your book. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I'll try to explain. You know my favorite scene in "King's Warrior" is the part where Oraeyn drops Kamarie in the river. I love it because it is funny, the characters come out so strong, and it was just all-around unexpected, but believable. I'd like to know what your favorite scene is, and why. I'd also be interested to know what scene or chapter gave you the hardest time writing, and which characters you like best. I don't know what letter you would put that under, but I would love to read a post about it! :)

    1. Oh oh! I just thought of what letter you could put it under! It could be a "King's Warrior eXtras" post. ;P

  3. Ooh, that's a great idea! I will do that. Thanks for the idea!!! (X was giving me trouble!)

    You should be able to leave comments on my blog without a facebook account... you just need to put in your name/email address/website...

    1. Seriously? Awesomesauce! Did not know that. You may begin expecting comments from me immediately. :P

  4. Margret Mitchell's writing is just awesome! I love her syntax and diction! BTW, did you write that last Belle/Gaston exchange? It really is very good!!

    1. Margaret Mitchell was an INCREDIBLE writer. And one of the very few that could pull off head-hopping effectively. I love 'Gone with the Wind' for many reasons, but the second most important one is that her writing is a joy to read. It flows so easy, yet it keeps a formal air to it. (The first most important reason can be summed up in two words: Rhett Butler XD)

      And thank you, I did write the last Belle/Gaston exchange. I'm going through a Disney princess thing right think all this college talk is making me want to fly off to Neverland. :(

    2. When I read Gone with the Wind for the first time, I was really surprised with its readability and how fast I could get through it, all while understanding it perfectly. And Rhett Butler is probably my favorite fictional character EVER!

      You're welcome! Don't stress out too much about college, it seems like a big, scary, looming disaster waiting for you at that stage, but give it some time. I felt that way, but now that I've grown older, my feelings are changing, and I'm actually excited to go!

  5. I'm fairly excited about college...just not the actual work that the classes will require. :P I'm also a tad put-out that college will take away four years of writing time for a degree that might not actually help me. From what I have seen, the best way to 'make it big' as an author is to self-publish and severely market. More people seem to notice the book that way now. *Sigh* I'm actually thinking about that CollegePlus thing...I guess I'm mostly just in denial that I have to make a decision about college soon. :P