“Pong” vs. “3-D Tennis”: Bringing Life to your Storyline’s Dialogues

I’m pretty much dating myself, but I have to ask:  Does anyone remember “Pong”?  That was the very first TV/computer-ish game to come out, and my family was enthralled.  It consisted of two vertical bars on either side of the screen, and a ball-like thing that you had to hit back and forth.  This was a big deal at the time.

Compare it to today’s computer games though–not only do you have people, you have audience, sound–and even sweat pouring off your player!  Look!  Beads of sweat!  Wow!

You’re right–there really is no comparison.  The first one can put you to sleep if you haven’t had several gallons of coffee–the good stuff.  But 3-D Tennis–that is exciting!  You can really get into something like that.

It’s like that with dialogue, too.  Here we have Pong People:

He said, “Where am I?”

She said, “I took you away.”

He said, “Why?”

She said, “Because I wanted you to myself.”

He said, “Let me go.”

She said, “No.”

I have honestly read dialogue like this in some books.  It’s Pong.  Back and forth, back and forth, getting a crick in my neck and it’s really not going anywhere…

Here’s the same conversation, with the enhanced bits in italics:

He woke with a start.  Ropes bound his arms and legs, and he was lying in the corner of what seemed to be a dungeon.  There was no light, except for a thin sliver of moonlight that was lucky enough to find a crack in the ceiling.

There was movement in the shadows, and he watched as Loretta came into the light.

He said, with a sigh of relief, “Loretta!  Thank heavens it’s you!  Where am I?  Please help me out of these ropes!”

She smirked, “Not likely, Jeff.”  Her figure moved out of the moonlight as she came closer.  “You see, I took you away.  Your little girlfriend will never find you.”

He gasped. What?   Loretta, why?  What have I ever done to you to deserve this treatment?”

Oh, darling Jeff,” she cooed, kneeling down in front of him, “It’s not what you did, it’s what you didn’t do.  All I‘ve ever wanted was to have  you to myself.  And you never seemed to like me the same way.”  She shrugged, a half-smile on her lips.  “So now you’re here, and here you will stay.  Until I tire of you, anyway.”

Fear made his heart flutter in his chest.  What did he know of this woman anyway?  Just one of the many girls who worked in the mail room.  What was she capable of?

He pushed back against the wall of his cell, trying to get away from her.  “No!” he cried, staring at her grasping fingers.  “Let me go, Loretta!  You know people will miss me, and they saw you with me earlier.  They will come looking for you,  you know that!” 

She merely laughed softly.  “No,” she said.  “I don’t think I will.”

True, Dialogue #2 takes longer to write, but it gives the scene color and action.  I know how hard it is, writing stuff that is meant to make the story go from Point A to Point B.  It’s tough.  There are various key points you want to make, and all those “story flow” details just take forever to put into the manuscript.

But keep this in mind–we as readers are basically blind.  I once found myself trying to describe “red” to someone who had never seen the color.  It had to be described in an emotional sense, rather than a visual one.

Writers–we cannot see into your minds.  We don’t see your vision, or the story that is in there screaming to come out.  Now, if you were at a football game, or a battle re-enactment, or even a party, and were trying to explain to your blind grandma what was going on, what words would you use?  How would you get the excitement across so that she could share in what you were experiencing?  Think on that–

You may have noticed in the second dialogue that there was a lot of movement.  You have to have gestures, facial expressions, and that sort of thing in with the dialogue.  Watch two people speaking to each other some time.  Notice that they are not standing/sitting like wooden marionettes, with just their jaws flapping.  They are looking around, twiddling their hair, laughing, crying, whatever.  This is a must in any dialogue, unless it is super-short.

One more thing I’d like to touch on:  never, never, NEVER switch topics in the middle of a dialogue, at least not without some sort of segue.  I read a part in a book one time where everyone was sad and crying.  There were hugs and grief and sorrow, which you would expect.  One of the people then says, “I loved Aunt X.  I will so miss her.  Can we get a dog?”

This, my friends, is known as mental whiplash.  It hurt my thinky-thing just to write it.  Don’t do that.  This is how Kindles get broken…

Anyway–I hope this helps if you needed it.  If not, print it out and use it as birdcage liner.  I won’t mind.  I have a lot of that sort of thing myself…


Good luck, and keep writing!  You get better with each word, remember that.

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