Jeanne: Dialogue Lessons

In October, I took an online dialogue class with Linnea Sinclair. It was a great class and I learned a lot. If you get an opportunity to study with Linnea, I highly recommend her.
One of the lessons had to do with beats, those bits of action that are interspersed with dialogue to illuminate a character’s emotions, motivations or intentions. As an exercise, Linnea provided us with the following dialogue:
“I can’t believe you went out and bought one,” Erica said.
“Don’t you dare tell Kermit,” Vanessa replied.
“You think he’ll be angry?” Erica asked.
“It’s my money. I saved up for this.”
“Remember, I’m just a phone call away if you need me.”

 The assignment was to add beats to the existing dialogue to create depth. A lot of the students added beats that showed how concerned both women were about Kermit’s potential reaction. This is what I came up with:

“I can’t believe you went out and bought one.” Erica stared at the frog-leg cooker on the kitchen table in horror.
“Don’t you dare tell Kermit.” Vanessa removed the fry basket and hefted it, as though calculating how many little green limbs it would hold.
Erica licked her lips and edged toward the door. “You think he’ll be angry?” 
Vanessa crossed her arms. “It’s my money. I saved up for this.” 
Erica’s head nodded up and down like a Miss Piggy bobble-head as she backed away. “Remember, I’m just a phone call away if you need me.” 
The doorknob poked her in the small of the back. She whipped through the door and slammed it behind her.
Try your hand. What would you do with this dialogue?

5 thoughts on “Jeanne: Dialogue Lessons

  1. What a fun game! I’m procrastinating in the fifteen minutes before lunch (can’t write, can’t sleep, and people will look at me funny if I’m eating at my desk fifteen minutes early). Let’s see what I can do.

    Vanessa looked like the hostess of a game show as she proudly showed off the black Ferrari in the drive way, right down to arm gestures. Her sister, Erica, shook her head.

    “I can’t believe you went out and bought one.” Erica knew Vanessa’s husband’s fiftieth birthday was coming up, but they were in debt up to their eyebrows, and Kermit was going to flip his lid.

    “Don’t you dare tell Kermit,” Vanessa said. Erica wouldn’t dream of it.

    “Do you think he’ll be angry?” Erica asked.

    Vanessa gave an airy wave of the hand, then fussed with the red ribbon on the hood. “It’s my money. I saved up for this.”

    Saved up for it? What bills had she skipped for the downpayment for this toy? Erica could see disaster on the horizon — even if Kermit didn’t come down hard on Vanessa, Erica’s husband and Kermit’s brother were going to want their money back. It was going to be a giant mess, but after a lifetime of similar troubles, Erica knew that Vanessa would never listen now. She only learned from the Hard Knock School of Experience. This must be the master’s program now.

    Erica sighed. “Remember, I’m just a phone call away if you need me.”

    (Sorry, I’m firmly in first draft mode, where the beats are still “telling” and not showing.)

    (-: I like yours a lot. There are a couple of Kermits out there (isn’t there a vice-chancellor of something or other who is a Kermit?), but your Kermit is the most famous Kermit. Your scene makes me think that if maybe Kermit didn’t mess around with serial killers, he wouldn’t be coming home to a surprise dinner . . . .

    • Excellent! I love the whole back story that these people are serial spendthrifts, with a history of missed payments and juggled bills. (I may know a few of those people.)

      I was putzing around with the dialogue, adding in beats, when all of a sudden it hit me that the guy’s name was Kermit. At that point, things took a turn toward the dark side (as they so often do).

      • I think we were both chafing at the constraints of this dialog! I was thinking about it in bed last night. These are really not my kind of characters.

        1. Who cares what Kermit thinks? It’s my character’s money, so if he doesn’t like it, he can suck it! Twenty-first century, bitches!
        2. Erica shows up to concern-troll. “Oh, Vanessa, are you sure you should do this? My, my, my. Kermit is going to be so ANGRY! Aren’t you afraid?” And then the troll disappears like a coward. If she really thinks Kermit is going to flip his lid, she should be offering Vanessa the number to some domestic violence hotlines, or at least stand by while the drama takes place. But no! She buggers off home and says, “Call me!” in that sweet, insincere, concerned-trolly voice.
        3. Phone?

        So, we’ve got to construct a scenario. It’s either going to be some 1950s retro piece where women had to exercise their power in devious ways, or we’ve got to bring the scenario into the twenty-first century with a serial-killer vibe or unrestrained spending debt or something. Or, we’ve got to give up our rose-colored glasses and admit that a lot of women still have to put up with controlling men, and it’s a widespread epidemic. But . . . we both write fantasy, and part of the fantasy is that our world is BETTER than that. (I think — I hope I’m not putting words into your mouth. But your women are strong.)

        If I did it again, I think I’d construct it as a text-message piece.

  2. I like both of these! I often sketch out the dialogue in a scene before Iadd in the beats. It’s good to know that it’s officially a trick for the toolbox, and very fun to see it in action.

    I’m tempted to have a try but I’m busy reading scripts before McKee’s class starts tomorrow.

    • I’ve been told that my first drafts read more like scripts than novels. I always “hear” a story long before I see it.

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