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Thursday, August 31

Learning To Write Dialogue From The Wire And Anne of Green Gables

By Spencer Ellsworth, @spencimus

Part of the How They Do It Series


JH: We're a little off schedule this week, but it's been one of those weeks. Instead of the regular Indie Author guest today, we have Spence Ellsworth in the lecture all to share some thoughts on writing dialogue. 

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. His short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and at Tor.com. Over the years, he's worked as a wilderness survival instructor, paraeducator in a special education classroom, and in publishing; he currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children and works at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation. His novel A Red Peace just released from Tor.


Take it away Spencer...

Today I want to talk about dialogue, and I know of no better examples of this than the two shows that go together like peanut butter and jelly: Anne of Green Gables & The Wire. Which one of us hasn’t sat down and thrilled to Anne Shirley and Omar’s adventures, and wished for the crossover show that never was but should have been?

We could had had Omar on the Lake of Shining Waters, cradling Matthew as his heart failed, or Anne as she uses her whimsical wit to dismantle systematic inequalities in Baltimore. But TV producers were too cowardly to cross over these soulmate shows.

Okay, maybe I’m joking (I’d still watch it).

Point is, dialogue is terribly tricky, and these shows got it very right.

Most writers are either too good at dialogue, and let it run away with them, or not good enough, and they forget to refine it.

In the first case, a lot of writers find they can put snappy, funny stuff in the mouths of snappy, funny characters. For page upon page. If you’re one of these writers, you may find that you deal with huge blocks of dialogue that say, in 2 pages, what you could say in 2 lines. You may chortle at your own cleverness, but your story moves at a snail’s pace.

More common, though, is the writer who tells a good story, ruined by relatively flat dialogue. The characters all say exactly what’s on their mind, and what advances the plot. They sound too alike. They don’t couch their comments in wordplay, posturing or preening.

Dialogue has to do several things—it should be clever and funny, establishing the character’s traits, but it should also move the plot along. Dialogue is often the best way to state the theme of a story, because audiences love the characters and attribute more importance to their words than the narrator’s. But dialogue has to be indirect. It can’t only state the plot, or blatantly state the character’s motivations.

So do me a favor and first of all, watch this clip from Anne of Green Gables. If you need background: Anne is an orphan, arriving to live with the spinster and bachelor siblings Marilla & Matthew, and Matthew is too shy to tell her they expected a boy.

(Those who mention the Netflix or PBS remakes can wait in the foyer.)

Notice what the dialogue does in this clip:

It reverses expectations. What could be an awkward, painful, heartbreaking moment becomes very naturally funny. Because the character’s voices are so strong, so anti-Lifetime, we are endeared to them rather than played for sympathy, which would create a weaker connection.

It portrays character. Anne’s answers are loquacious and rambling and half in our world, half in her imagination. Marilla’s answers are snappy and to-the-point.

It reveals contradictions in the character. “To despair is to abandon God,” Marilla says, showing her deep Christian faith—but here is the ultimate test of Christianity that Jesus offered. “When saw we thee a stranger?” (Matt 25: 38-46) This sets up Marilla’s internal conflict over keeping Anne.

“To despair is to abandon God” also states the theme. Whether Marilla admits it or not, she, Matthew and Anne all despair and need each other.

Now do me a favor and watch this clip from The Wire (warning: strong language, including culturally appropriate usage of the N-word). If you need background: Omar, a wild card who robs drug dealers, is testifying (falsely) against the local drug ring and forming a temporary alliance with the Baltimore PD for his own reasons.

Notice what the dialogue does here:

Again it reverses expectations. Omar is cool under fire and blatantly commits perjury, as illustrated by the conversation between Idris Elba and Dominic West’s characters. Stringer and McNulty. It is much more interesting (and character-driven) than a stereotypical courtroom scene.

Dialogue portrays character, again. Omar doesn’t have to explain or justify how a man makes a living robbing drug dealers. “Day at a time, I suppose” shows us his devil-may-care attitude. Similarly, McNulty reveals his own character to Stringer. He is happy to have Omar perjure himself as long as they can get away with it.

Again, it reveals contradictions in the character. Omar has “never put [his] gun on no citizen” but he acknowledges that he operates in a moral gray area. It’s clear that, no matter how unrepentant he appears, there is a lot of drama to be had in Omar’s “code.” How long can he maintain that code in the drug scene of Baltimore?

“I got the shotgun, you go the briefcase; it’s all in the game, though” states the theme of The Wire. Omar’s perjury is a clear case of police, attorneys and drug dealers all fighting to “game” the broken legal system all the more effectively.

Homo fictus must always be more funny, more shy, more clever, than Homo sapiens. Put the important things not just in your characters’ mouths, but in their distinct voices, and readers will follow you to anywhere in the world—maybe even to an Anne of Green Gables/The Wire crossover. (Still hoping.)

About Starfire: A Red Peace

A galactic empire has fallen... and a secret directive rings throughout the new order of the stars: kill all the humans.

Jaqi is a nobody, a simple navigator with a trick to finding little-used hyperspace routes. She never expected to save important political prisoners, given that said prisoners are just human children. She never expected to run from the full military might of the galaxy's new masters. Now, she and her charges must survive as they flee across a galaxy in flames, and Jaqi must ask herself whether she has the strength to fight the darkness in the wake of war.

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1 comment:

  1. Great article and I enjoyed your examples. I love writing dialogue but often have to go back and reign it in and pare it down. My characters don't always say what they mean or what they're thinking but that tends to reveal character better than straightforward dialogue.

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