Day 1: James Scott Bell’s Tools for Dialogue

Yes, this was a back-to-back talk given by Mr. Bell after which, my brain exploded. I’m still picking up pieces.

This is one small portion of his talk and since it doesn’t require diagrams, I thought I could share it without too much difficulty. (He does like diagrams.) Each of these tools are things we need to practice in each scene that has dialogue – and that means every scene for most of us.

1. Orchestration of Conflict: Keep the possibilities for conflict coming. Mr. Bell mentioned a scene in “Casablanca” where we see Rick, the Frenchman and the Gestapo agent talking about the war, Rick’s stance, etc. Throughout the scene, there’s an unspoken, but rising threat from the Gestapo.

2. P.A.C.: This stands for
P=Parental or authoritarian style of motivation.
C=Childlike, emotional motivational style.

Mr. Bell mentioned how you can watch the dialogue between Oscar and Felix in “The Odd Couple” go from one character being the authoritarian, to the adult to the child and how, given different situations, Oscar and Felix change roles. This keeps the scenes believable, dynamic and snappy.

3. Curve the Language: Write a line of dialogue, then swap words out and make it more threatening.

4. Turn Exposition into confrontation within dialogue. For the sake of a quick demonstration, please forgive me for using an excerpt from my own ms. The following scene has been posted here before. It’s a confrontation that happens between my villain (Hu Xiongli) and a minor character who is the head of the Butchers Guild:

“Tell me, Guild Master, has Tong Zhang written requesting money and food yet?”

“He has.” Wu crumbled more of his rice cake into the waiting mouths below. “You ought to know I cannot deny a guild member his rights-“
“I do. How long have you held your office, Yang Wu?”
Wu stiffened. It was the slightest of reactions. A flick of rice cake. A tic of facial muscles. Yet the implied threat was received. Now the enticement.
“You can deny him whatever you wish,” Xiongli said. “He is a traitor to the Empire and should be denied.” Silence reigned for a moment as Xiongli let his words sink in. Then he turned to Wu again and allowed the painted, friendly expression to return to his face. “You and your guild would be compensated.”
“A traitor to the Empire is still not a traitor to his guild, Lord Hu.”
“Ah, but if he is not a traitor to his guild, then what Empire does the guild serve?”

I do not baldly state anywhere in this scene what the threat to Yang Wu is. I leave that to the reader’s imagination. However, thanks to the scene’s setup, the reader is aware of recent capital punishments and an assassination attempt on Xiongli’s life that’s made him both bloodthirsty and jumpy. Both men are tense and each line is designed to show their struggles and desires as well as convey the importance of the guild.

5. Avoid Direct Response Dialogue: Don’t do things like: “Sally, do you want ice cream?” “Yes, Daddy. I want ice cream.” Answer questions with questions, non sequitur responses, etc. For example, “Sally, do you want ice cream?” “Why did you kiss Mrs. Tanner, Daddy?”

6. Go with the flow. Use dialogue without tags and beats. It’s liberating.

7. Minimize dialogue. When revising, copy and paste to a new file, then compress. Add beats for dialogue, and make sure your characters talk the way people really talk. We don’t always say, “Do you want ice cream?” Sometimes we’ll say, “Want ice cream?” or “Want some?” Yes, I am ice cream-obsessed.

8. Silence. Don’t make every response audible, but make your beats meaningful.

9. Tags. Mode and feelings should be evident from your verbiage. Beats go before dialogue. This helps identify the speaker, for one thing.

I remember trying (and failing) to understand Chemistry and despairing because my future father-in-law was my instructor and I so wanted to impress him. Years later, I confessed my confusion and he was disappointed I hadn’t said something at the time. He had other methods of explaining chemistry. He said if I hadn’t understood one approach, I might have grasped a different one. To me, James Scott Bell’s talk was helpful because I need to remember to THINK about these things as I write and not write by “feel.” What about you? Is approaching writing from this angle helpful?