Ask Mr. Writing Person: Idle Dialogue
Today on Ask Mr. Writing Person, Claire Hitchins from Belcher, Louisiana struggles to stand up to Mr. Writing Person's superior intellect in a battle of the foul winds and bugs. [Ed: Don't forget the zits.] Claire has a problem with dialogue:
Q. I've got some dialogue that needs to slow down, but I don't want to use the words "actioned" and "gestured"--
A. Let me guess. You're writing sci-fi horror, right?
Q. No, I'm--
A. Sci-fi horror has a plethora of quirky conventions like the one you've run headlong into. You can't get away with using invisible words like "actioned" and "gestured." You have to fill them in with authentic actions and gestures.
Q. Yeah, that's what I want to do, but I'm not--
A. I'm glad you came to me, because I'm a card-carrying genius. Now, you need what I call idling.
Q. Like a car?
A. Exactly. People idle just like cars do. You just need to observe it, and then put it in your story.
Q. The problem is, they're all men and they're alone together, and I don't know what men do when they're alone together.
A. Let's see your dialogue. Do you have a version with the invisible words?
Q. I do. Here's the situation. Three guys, Buttersmack, Horaceface, and Matthew, are on a triple date, and they've gone to the restroom together to preen themselves and talk about their girlfriends.
A. No kidding? They all went together? That's a tad strange... unless they're sticking together in case there's a mutagen-infused nuclear garden lizard in the restroom lying wait to rip into someone's abdomen if he shows up alone. Yes, that makes sense.
Q. Uh, yeah. Something like that. So here's the dialogue:
Matthew gestured like a wild man as he straightened his jacket. "I can't believe," he intoned as he actioned, "that my date is so insensitive! Did you hear what she said about the woman at the other table? By the way, how's my hair?"
"Forsooth," forsoothed Buttersmacketh, actioningeth and gesturingeth. "It sticketh up in the backeth. But by gollyeth, mine hath no fashion sense! Did you beholdeth her, in her horizontally-stripeth skirt and polka-dottedeth blouseth? It'th embarrassingeth!"
Matthew actioned at Buttersmack and gestured as well. "I'll bet my date is thinking something totally rotten about your date right now," he articulated, actioning with his hair.
Horaceface sighed as he actioned. "You know, guys," he verbalized while he gestured, "I wish my date would communicate with me on a deeper level. All she ever wants to talk about is her collection of really cute skirts. She's as deep as the shallow end of a pool isn't. Can someone zip me up?"
Matthew actioned. Buttersmack gestureth. Horaceface actioned and gestured. Matthew gestured. Horaceface actioned again.
"Well, guys, let's go," pronounced Horaceface, actioning, gesturing, and actioning some more. "It's back to the grindstone."
A. I see you've been taking my lessons to heart. I like how you've added voice to Buttersmack. You've got a slightly gargantuan problem, however.
A. You're an illiterate Philistine.
Q. I knew that part...
A. And you suck at writing men. Really. Now, before you start crying--no, stop, really, please--you should know that this is quite common for beginning female writers. They think men think like women. It's just not true. For example, Matthew probably would have been bragging about how his date insulted the woman at the other table--oh, please stop blubbering--and Horaceface probably wouldn't have said anything, preferring to wonder about the shortest cute skirt in his date's collection.
Q. (sniff) I guess so.
A. So here's what I'll do, dear grasshopper. I'll put in proper man idling, and fix up the dialogue at the same time to make it more realistic. Okay?
A. Here's the new version:
Matthew scratched under his armpits. "My date rules," he intoned.
"Forsooth," forsoothed Buttersmacketh as he itcheth his posterior region. He then grunteth.
Matthew grunted back at Buttersmack and rubbed at an itchy spot on his calf with the opposite foot. "Your date sucks," he articulated, still rubbing.
Horaceface idly raked at his hair. "Skirt," he verbalized, grunting.
Matthew scratched. Buttersmack itcheth. Horaceface dug at an unmentionable spot. Matthew scritched as he kept a wary eye out for any sign of mutagen-infused nuclear garden lizards. Horaceface dug at the unmentionable spot again.
"This sucks," pronounced Horaceface, scratching the aforementioned unmentionable spot more vigorously. "Let's go."
That's much better.
Q. I don't get it. Did you expose my guys to some kind of chemical agent or something?
A. No. They're men. They scratch.
Q. That's how men idle?
A. Exactly. Men are generally quite hairy. Now imagine being a man, and itching all night in some unmentionable spot but not being able to scratch. What's the first thing you do when you get to the restroom?
Q. Ah. I get it.
A. Great. Now, let's get to women. You're a woman, but I'll bet you've never really observed women. You probably can't write what three women would do in a restroom together.
Q. I could! They'd fix up their hair, put on makeup, talk about their--
A. You've proved my point by being spectacularly wrong. I'm going to substitute your men for women, and show you what they'd really do in the restroom.
Q. I know what they'd--
A. Shush, young naïf. This is Cher, Paris, and Hildegarde:
Cher picked through Paris's bushy hair. "My date rules," she intoned.
"Forsooth," forsoothed Paris as she belcheth loudly.
Cher belched back at Paris and pried some more strands of her hair apart. "Your date sucks," she articulated, still searching.
Hildegarde idly squeezed a zit on her nose. "Boxers," she verbalized as she produced a foul wind from an unmentionable spot.
Cher finally found what she was looking for: a nit. She pinched it out, watched it struggle uselessly between her fingers, and then popped it in her mouth. The mutagen-infused nuclear garden lizard stomped off, jealous. Cher chewed her nit thoughtfully as she pulled her leg up and let one fly.
"This sucks," pronounced Hildegarde, popping another zit. "Let's go."
Q. What are they doing?
A. Woman idling, of course. When women are alone together, they pop zits, belch, fart, and pick bugs out of each other's hair and eat them.
Q. I don't know what women you've met, but--
A. How could you have so much hair and not have it crawling with insects?
Q. Mine doesn't--
A. And if you never belch or pass gas in public, when else would you do it?
Q. Well, in the bathroom on the--
A. Exactly! I deduced it! Not being a woman is no hinderance to me, for I am capable of rational thought.
Q. Is that so?
A. I'm a card-carrying genius. I should show it to you sometime.
Q. What, your genius?
A. My card.
Q. What about the zits?
A. Would you pop them in public?
Q. No, but--
A. I rest my case.
Q. What about eating bugs?
A. That's what my garden lizard does.
Q. Your garden lizard isn't a woman.
A. My mother is.