February 13, 2017

Writing Powerful Dialogue

One of the things that originally drew me to classic Southern fiction was its compelling dialogue. From Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, we’ll never forget broken Blanche DuBois’ pitiful “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” nor even Stanley Kowalski’s simple, desperate “Stella!” In Faulkner’s great Absalom, Absalom!, Charles Bon’s “—So it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can’t bear” reveals in one sentence the novel’s social themes with authority.

In my interview on LA Talk Radio’s “The Writer’s Block,”  hosts Jim Christina and Bobbi Bell asked how I created such powerful dialogue in my antebellum South thriller, The Lies That Bind: DarkHorseTrilogy, Book 1. Frankly, my reply to them wasn’t very revealing, and I’ve thought about what I should have said ever since. So, expiating my sin of omission, here are some keys to writing memorable dialogue.

Characters with Strong Points of View
If you have strong, intelligent characters with strong points of view—obsessions are especially excellent—they’ll tell you, the writer, what they want to say. All you’ve got to do is transcribe their words. I generally find my characters telling me what they desperately need to express in a scene I’m working on when I wake up in the morning, when taking a shower, or even exercising. These often prove to be the best lines in the book.

For example, in The Lies That Bind, the wealthy Missus French runs the town, but because of her traumatic past with men, she is now a recluse who disdains people. So when her heir, Devereau, cajoles her to make her [dreaded] annual Easter pilgrimage to the church in town, she reveals her complete estrangement from society and its institutions with: “I don’t see why I have to go to church simply because That Man rose from the dead.”

Limitations Lead to Irony/Humor
Novels also contain dialogue that, because the reader has superior position, makes the character’s misstatements ironic, humorous, and fraught with meaning. In Faulkner’s masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom!, Wash Jones’ never-say-die exclamation about the Southern war effort, “They kilt us…but they ain’t whupped us yit, air they?” is unforgettable. In my novel, minor character Ellen is a young innocent who believes she is being guided by God to free all the slaves in town, so she secretly sews a ridiculous gown she believes is seductive. When her naive scheme takes her unannounced into Devereau French’s bedroom, revealing the terrified Devereau’s most awkward secret, Ellen is so confused and self-conscious, all she can say is, “Don’t you never tell nobody you seen me wearing this”—which readers often quote to me.

When you write a novel, you live intimately with your characters for a long time. If you listen closely to their needs and desires, they’ll write some unforgettable dialogue for you. But be sure you quote them accurately and honestly—it’s only fair :)
Ed Protzel has the unique perspective of a mixed-heritage Jew-Cherokee, who lived for a time in an orphanage and later as a teen runaway, gives Ed Protzel special insights into characters that are outsiders, men and women on lonely quests seeking justice, love, and fulfillment against society’s blindness. The Lies That Bind, a darkly ironic antebellum South thriller, is the first book in Ed’s DarkHorse Trilogy. Ed has also written five original screenplays for feature film and developed scripts/projects for 20th Century Fox. Ed earned his master’s degrees in English literature/creative writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and his bachelor’s in English at the University of Hawaii. Ed had a dual career for over twenty years, working as an investments advisory manager for Fortune 100 firms, while writing screenplays and novels. Ed’s expertise as a novelist and screenwriter is in the American tragicomedy movement (Faulkner, Twain, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor), science fiction, Shakespeare, and a variety of historical periods, including World War II, the American Civil War, and Fourteenth Century Europe. The final two books in his DarkHorse Trilogy include many of the same major characters as the original: Honor Among Outcasts, set in Missouri during the Civil War (2017), and Something in Madness, set in the 1880s (2018). Ed is married and lives in St. Louis, where he writes full time and teaches college English as an adjunct. His social media links are website:
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