Drawn-out Dialogue

          Tina, the airhead, the complete fool. She’s wearing some ugly sweater today.

          Mark noticed her face looked as if someone had mistaked it for play-doh.

          Yeah, he laughed to himself, she’s a complete imbecil.

          She turned around and met his eyes, then she smiled.

           Mark nudged Jon and mouthed something to him and they laughed.

          “Isn’t she so stuck up?” Mark added to his first insulting message.

           “Oh yeah.” John said. “Yeah, she thinks she’s so pretty and all. She’s a dog.” Then he cupped his hands over his mouth and whispered “woof woof” loud enough for Tina to hear.

            She turned back around in a huff as the two boys laughed heartily.

            Mrs. Michaels looked from the test papers she was correcting and told them to get back to work.

            As they walked out of class, Mark and Jon yelled, “woof woof” at Tina. She held up her head and met Kris and Donna at the stairway.

            Mark then turned to Jon, “Hey, how come that other girl with the blonde hair isn’t with them?”

            “Who? Rellie?” Jon asked.

            “Yeah, I guess so. She’s always hanging around Kris. Or at least, she used to.”

            “I don’t know. Maybe she got smart and left the group.” Jon laughed.

            “Tina’s the worst, Kris and the rest aren’t so bad.”

            “Okay, you got a point there. That Rellie girl, she’s a depresso-maniac. I heard that one day she had a fit and broke five windows in this dumb school with her fist.”

            “Is that true?” Mark asked, shocked.

            “Well, that’s what I heard.”

            “No way!” Mark exclaimed. “With her fist?”

            “Real smart girl.” Jon said sarcastically.

            “Yeah.” Mark laughed.

            “Smashed five windows…” Mark mused as they walked to their next class.

First off, I need to point something very important out. When writing a story, every scene must serve a purpose. This scene doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, except for relaying that two boys in Rellie’s school are jerks and they think she’s nuts. I could place these boys in another scene that has a true purpose and relay the information that these boys bully Rellie there instead and snip this scene from the story. And as far has telling the reader that these guys think Rellie is nuts…well, a lot of scenes in the story inform us that the kids in the school think Rellie has a screw loose, so this one isn’t necessary. But I could also give this scene a purpose, and keep it in the story. Decisions, decisions. Truly? I’d chuck the scene. But I’m here to use this as a teaching tool, so here is how I’d revamp the scene.

First, let’s take a look at the scene’s introduction:

Tina, the airhead, the complete fool. She’s wearing some ugly sweater today.

Mark noticed her face looked as if someone had mistaked it for play-doh.

My Big Mistake? I have the first sentence coming off as either first person or close third. But the next sentence sounds more like distant third or even omniscient. There are a couple ways I could fix this. Here is how I’d write this in close third:

Mark had to swallow a chuckle. Airheaded Tina, whose brain could fit inside one of her bras A-cups, had on something that could only be described as trash meets vomit. And what was with the makeup? You’d need a spatula to scrape it off.

Distant third:

Mark had always considered Tina to be one stop sign short of a car accident, but now he eyed her up and down, taking in the unflattering sweater, her God-awful makeup. Stupid is as stupid does, he thought as he suppressed a chuckle. If there was one thing Mark was talented at, it was sizing people up.

The second example sounds more like a narrator talking to us, doesn’t it? That’s the big difference between close third and distant third. Close third puts us right in the character’s head. Distant third is a watchful observer explaining a story and its characters to us.

Okay, next on my list of changes is this passage:

           Yeah, he laughed to himself, she’s a complete imbecil.

          She turned around and met his eyes, then she smiled.

          Mark nudged Jon and mouthed something to him and they laughed.

          “Isn’t she so stuck up?” Mark added to his first insulting message.

           “Oh yeah.” John said. “Yeah, she thinks she’s so pretty and all. She’s a dog.” Then he cupped his hands over his mouth and whispered “woof woof” loud enough for Tina to hear.

            She turned back around in a huff as the two boys laughed heartily.

            Mrs. Michaels looked from the test papers she was correcting and told them to get back to work.

Besides the grammatical and spelling errors, which as I reader I want to have corrected, the setting hasn’t been established until the teacher looks up. I’d thought they were in the school hallway up until this point! Plus, what’s this knowing what Mark is thinking and saying up until he mouths something to Jon? What the heck did he mouth? Why not tell the reader? We get that it was rude with the next sentence, when he “added to his first insulting message,” but why put it that way? Why not just tell the reader what Mark said? Perhaps I wanted to frustrate the reader? Or, more than likely, I couldn’t come up with something nasty enough for him to say so I figured, let the reader do the hard work and come up with it him/herself. Not a good strategy, by the way.

           Mrs. Michaels looked from the test papers she was correcting and told them to get back to work.

            As they walked out of class, Mark and Jon yelled, “woof woof” at Tina. She held up her head and met Kris and Donna at the stairway.

The biggest problem? The teacher tells them to get back to work and they walk out of class. Uh…huh?

          Mark then turned to Jon, “Hey, how come that other girl with the blonde hair isn’t with them?”

            “Who? Rellie?” Jon asked.

            “Yeah, I guess so. She’s always hanging around Kris. Or at least, she used to.”

            “I don’t know. Maybe she got smart and left the group.” Jon laughed.

            “Tina’s the worst, Kris and the rest aren’t so bad.”

            “Okay, you got a point there. That Rellie girl, she’s a depresso-maniac. I heard that one day she had a fit and broke five windows in this dumb school with her fist.”

            “Is that true?” Mark asked, shocked.

            “Well, that’s what I heard.”

            “No way!” Mark exclaimed. “With her fist?”

            “Real smart girl.” Jon said sarcastically.

            “Yeah.” Mark laughed.

            “Smashed five windows…” Mark mused as they walked to their next class.

Here is where the boys’ conversation goes majorly downhill. It’s tedious. Dull. The boys have the exact same voice, I can’t differentiate them. And this part: “No way!” Mark exclaimed.  Um…I think the exclamation point already tells us Mark is exclaiming. It’s redundant to follow up with this narrative.

Plus, why wouldn’t Mark know Rellie’s name? He acts like he doesn’t. But a) the name is unusual and b) if Rellie is a nut job and kids gossip about her, of course he’d remember her name. Him not remembering doesn’t ring true. And wouldn’t Mark have heard that Rellie smashed the school’s windows? Even if it wasn’t true? I mean, his buddy Jon knows about it. Why wouldn’t he? Makes no sense.

Back to the dialogue. What we need here is a purpose. What information might they relay to the reader that could turn this scene around and give it a reason to stick around? Here’s a possibility:

           The bell rang, dismissing Mark and Jon from their class. They gathered their books, dumped them into their backpacks, and headed for the hallway already crowded with students.

            Tina slipped past them, and Mark breathed in the vanilla musk she always wore. A scent that made him heady. He took in her long, lean legs shown off by a short skirt. Despite being the beginning of spring her gams were tanned. Stunning. Not that he’d let anyone know he wouldn’t mind touching them. “Woof, woof,” he called after her. He nudged Jon. “What a dog, right?”

            “Oh yeah. Definitely.” Jon wasn’t looking at Tina, though. His head was turned toward the drinking fountain where Kris Taylor was leaned over, gulping away like a thirsty fish. “Wonder why she doesn’t hang with Rellie no more?”

            “Kris? So what? You got a thing for Rellie these days, man?” Mark snickered and stole another glance at Tina. She was at her locker, turning the combination. He wondered what those fingers would feel like on him. She always wore light pink nail polish, a huge turn-on.

            Jon socked him in the gut, and Mark was forced to turn his attention away from Tina. “No way,” Jon said. “Rellie’s bi-polar, dude.”

            “For real?” He’d learned about people who were bi-polar in psych class, but never knew one.

            “You think if someone goes smashing her fist through a window she’s normal?”

            “I put my fist through a door, and I’m not messed up,” Mark said. It was over a girl and his mother grounded him for two weeks.

            “We’re talking about Rellie here, dude.”

The purpose of this scene is two-fold. We learn that Mark has a big-time crush on Tina but won’t admit it even to himself, and we learn that Rellie smashed a window at school, and notice Mark knows about it. I didn’t have to tell the reader this. It’s obvious in the conversation. We also learn that Kris and Rellie don’t seem to be close anymore. Oh, and I changed five windows to one because it’s highly unlikely a person could go through with putting a fist through more than one, their hand would be shredded and the pain would be excruciating. Could it happen? Maybe. But one smashed window has a big enough effect, I don’t need to overdo it.

The dialogue has been broken up by thoughts and action. One kid uses “dude,” the other uses “man.” Their voices are slightly different. Their attitudes come through: Jon sounds savvy, Mark not so much. And we learn a lot through their dialogue, even though they say less than they do in the unedited piece I wrote as a teen.

So here is the lesson: remember setting (note how I had them leave the classroom and watch the goings-on in the school hallway), give the conversation a purpose (relaying important information to the reader), and throw in action and thought to make your scene come alive.

#thirdperson #dialogue #revision #scene #character

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