Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oh-Em-Gee: Why We Don't Write Dialogue Like We Speak

My husband suggested an alternate title of “On Safari” for this post. Why? Because today I had the rare opportunity to observe teens in their natural habitat. ;-) When I was a teacher I was immersed in teen culture. But then I got pregnant and became a stay-at-home mom. Suddenly my vocabulary fell apart in the midst of gurgling and cooing. As my son grew, my vocabulary recovered. But.

Luckily today I got to go to a local coffee house. I realized I’d been wrong about something. I incorrectly associated the coffee house scene with college and older.

I'm going to use the following post for multiple reasons. Please bear with me and look for notes in brackets.

When the first 15 year old girl walked in I realized my belief of coffee shops being for college and up was wrong. This was a cute kid. Long blonde hair (all the girls around here are wearing their hair long, it seems). Slender. Jeans, white shirt and heavy mascara. Zebra-striped oversized purse. She sat down at the table next to mine. Let’s call her #1.

#1 pulled out her cell phone. What follows is the conversation and events occurring over the next hour and a half. It should be a clear demonstration of why we do not write dialogue the way we talk (please note: while the girls were going on and on, I was working on my NaNo and inserting snippets from their conversation so I can make sure my teen characters feel authentic). Back to #1...

“Nothing. No. Nothing. We live in frikkin’ ____. No. There’s nothing to do here. No. I want to do something. It’s so frikkin’ boring. I KNOW! I’m so frikkin’ bored. But what is there to do in ______? I KNOW. Nothing. Yeah. Chilling. On Main Street. Yeah. I’m at C-----o. C--p---oh. Yeah. Nooo. Yeah. If I could drive... But I’m 15. No. There’s nothing fun to do if you’re 15. You are? That’ll be a while. Yeah. I’ll just chill here.”

[Think about when you were a teen. There was almost never anything to do (regardless of where you lived). Think where you grew up was dull? The same thought is universal. Teens living right by multiple major amusement parks have the same complaint. I know. Regardless of your age, you probably thought there was nothing cool to do and things would get cooler when you got older. Remember that when writing teens. May be useful...]

#1 closed the cell and got some chai. She started reading the second book by a very popular author. In a few minutes she disappeared into the bathroom.

While she was gone two other girls came in. Let’s call them #2 and #3.

#2: Are you gonna get in trouble?
#3: No. He thought I was 17. But he’s over 18. So... he’s screwed. But he thought I was 17.

Oh. Boy. I usually don't pay attention so long to any one group of folks when I'm out and about. But these gals kept throwing out bits of stuff (and loudly).

They went to get drinks. And bumped into #1.

#2: Oh-em-gee! You’re here?! I NEVER see you anymore.
#1: I KNOW!
#2: It’s like I’m in one world and you’re—nowhere!
#1: I KNOW!
#3: So what are you doing here?
#1: Nothing. Just chilling.
#2: Are you reading this?
#1: Yeah.
#2: Is it like ____?
#1: No. It’s a downer. It started good but then...
#3: Sad?
#1: A total downer.
#3: I just realized—where’s ____?
#1: Still in bed.
#2: WHAT?! Isn’t it your birthday?
#1: Ye-ahhh.
#3: And he isn’t here? [Watch #3 and consider her motivation. How do you interpret what she says as the convo goes on?]
#2: Did you text him?
#1: Yeah. He was asleep.
#3: Why was he so tired? [I promised myself not to give dialogue tags, but her tone of voice was meant to imply something. And not something nice.]
#2: Huh. (texts the boy in question)
#2: (calls him) What are you doing? You’re still in bed? I’m chilling down at C-----o. No. Nothing. Just chilling. I can’t believe you’re still in bed. Yeah. Come down. Main Street. Yeah. C-----o. Yeah. No. Get up. F--- you! (said as an endearment—seriously) (hangs up) [Using the "endearment" she did blew my mind. Hadn't heard it that way before. Consider what certain "endearments" imply.]
#3: I can’t believe he’s not here. It’s your birthday.
#1: No, Saturday’s my birthday.
#2: No it’s not.
#1: My dad and sister are coming home Saturday. We’ll celebrate then.
#2: Awww. That’s sweet.
#3: So what are you going to do?
#1: There’s nothing TO do. I’m so frikkin’ bored.
#3: You should text him. What are you going to do?
#1: I don’t know. I’m so frikkin’ bored. [When writing dialogue our editors would strangle us if we got so repetitive--unless there's a VERY good reason to do it. Think about how teachers hint at stuff that's important for a test--through repetition. You can do that, too, but in small doses.]
(#1 texts him)
#1: He’s calling me. You are? No. On Main Street?
#3: He’s on Main Street?
#2: Wouldn't be funny if he just showed up? (#2 and #3 sort of had a little side convo for a moment--loud enough to distract #1)
#1: Where? C-----o. Yeah. Seriously? C----o.
#3: You’ve told him that like three times. [Ah. Exaggeration begins. We never exaggerated as teens, right? ;-)]
#1: Yeah. I’m here with ____ and ____. Just chilling. C----o. Okay. Really? Right now? I could walk over. No. It’s okay. I can walk over. Yeah. Do you want me to walk over? No. I’ll just walk over. Okay.
(#1 hangs up)
#3: You told him C-----o like seven times. So what are you going to do?
#2: Eight. [Support and trumping of friend's exaggeration.]
#1: He’s in the parking lot. Across from S-l’s.
#3: He drives?
#1: Yeah.
#3: That’s a plus.
#2: That’s a plus. [Support through parroting friend--her tone wasn't a mimic, though.]
#3: So what are you gonna do?
#1: Go back to his place. He’ll probably take a shower and I’ll play with his puppies. They’re cute.
#3: Awww.
#1: Maybe go to the park. He texted me: We can chill at the park and talk about life smiley-face exclamation point.
(#1 starts to leave when #2 charges her for a hug)
#2: We should chill again sometime.
#1: Yeah.
(#1 leaves)
#2: She’s so weird. [Here's where the lack of dialogue tags leaves you out of the loop--the body language of #2 and #3 was subtly distant the whole time they were "chilling" with #1. Too many dialogue tags yank you out of the flow of the dialogue--like these pesky notes in brackets. But some may be necessary. Weigh it out. The only time #2 and #3 got physically close to #1 was when they seemed to notice things weren't as perfect as they could be with #1 and her boy. So I was thinking "sharks" and wasn't surprised by this turn of events, but was amazed at how boldly friendly #2 seemed by rushing to hug #1 JUST before verbally betraying her. Niiice.]
#3: Yeah.
#2: I mean, it’s weird. It’s her birthday and she’s sitting here alone.
#3: Yeah.
#2: I try to avoid her.

So. Wow. It was totally like being on safari watching (well, eavesdropping) on the big cats—or at least a couple catty girls.


Think about how you could compress the dialogue above (they were very repetitive!). What bits would you toss and what would you keep? How could you use the main concept of this dialogue to further a teen story (after cutting the fat) so it's not "talking heads?"

When you're out in public next time, listen closely to people who are the age and gender of your characters. What are they saying? How are they acting? How can you make it faster, maybe funnier, maybe frightening...? And consider the what if and what else.

PS--As a note, 2 boys joined #2 and #3 as I was packing up. What did they add to the convo? Basically, "Why?" and "No." No more than three words per sentence.


Casse AKA Catholic Kittie said...

I know I mock teen speak with the Oh-Em-Gee but wow you and all teachers (past and current) who have to listen to this daily, deserves an award! Drives me insane lol I love my 13 yo neice, but she types like thiiizz. Also a point in why we don't write dialog how one says things. *pulls my hair out*

Shannon Delany said...

I understand, Casse! :-) I loved my years teaching and totally loved the idea of being part of a different culture with its own language and rules. It's just important to remember that when we write those types of characters we need to honor their authentic voices.

And the example of how your 13 yo niece types--I'd be taking note and using that if a 13 yo character was texting. :-)

Thanks for stopping in and hug that niece. ;-)

Sheila Deeth said...

Oh wow. That was an amazing safari. And fascinating insights into the need for dialog tags and edits. Cool.

Shannon Delany said...

Thanks, Sheila! Glad it's useful. :-) It was fascinating to sit and listen (and man was I thankful I don't have teens yet after listening to those girls!).