Archives for category: Listen To What Your Characters Say!

I recently watched Another Earth (winner of the Sundance 2011).  The main character, Rhoda takes us on her journey to redemption for having killed a man’s family in a car accident resulting in a four year prison term.  One of many aspects of this film that was masterful was its dialogue and lack of it – no one spoke for half of the film (Rhoda’s alienation from her family and friends).  As she sets herself on a path to meet the man whose family died because of her criminal negligence and does meet him, befriends him and turns his life around, dialogue gains substance and meaning.  Dialogue is withheld and introduced to correspond with the characters’ social disengagement and engagement.

Characters need to be silent and conversant.  Know when each is appropriate to build both your characters’ interior and exterior worlds.

Here is dialogue that allows silence among its syllables from The Art of Falling.

Rushing to him, she tapped on the window.  The boy jumped, focused on her, then rolled it down. “Are you all right?”  She was steady and calm.  She looked at the space between his bumper and the tree.  “Can you talk?”

He sat in silence.  Angry he wasn’t alone.   Angry that he was.   His face felt swollen with it.   Then, “Yeah…yeah…I’m sorry.”

She gave him space, time.  “You’re sorry!  For what?”
For what…for what…he thought.  For what… He lowered his head.   Why is she here?  Leave me the hell alone.  “…for doing this.  For falling asleep at the wheel.”

She thought he struggled to breathe and gave him more time. “Look, you seem a little shaken.  Breathe deeply, slowly.  Can you?”  He tried.  “Any pain?”  He didn’t answer.  “Keep breathing, then we’ll get your car turned around.”

“No!” as he forced air into his shallow lungs.


“Car’s outta gas!  Won’t turn around.”

Nan was speechless, thought about the complexity of his simple sentence, Car’s outta gas!  “You’re out of gas?  Then looked at the tree, an inch from his bumper.  “You said you fell asleep.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry you had to stop and get out of your car.”

“You don’t have to be sorry for anything,” She looked at the highway beyond and a field of cows ahead.  He fell asleep and is out of gas.  She looked again at the tree.  “Where are you going?”

“Camping.  I have all my gear.  I’m going west – all the way to B.C. to hook up with friends.  I bought this car last week.”

She looked inside the empty car.  “You’re going west?  Well, I hate to rain on your parade, but you’re heading northeast.”

“Northeast?”  And he looked at her face and the two brown moons that sat like dusk setting over his own eyes.  He stared trying to recall similar discs he had seen once, then looked away.  “Northeast!”  He was amazed.

Nan reached in and patted the boy’s forearm still wrapped around the wheel.  “You should try to relax.”  Quickly he dropped his arm to his side, and as quickly Nan withdrew hers.  “I’ll call a service centre.”


“Why not?”
“No money.”

“You’re going to B.C. without money?”

“I’ve got everything else.  In the trunk.  Tent.  Guitar.  Books. Food.”

“What kind of books?”

“The usual.  Nietzsche, Watts, Huxley, Kerouac.”

“Not so usual,” she commented and smiled.

He bent forward and panned the field through the windshield.  “I think I’m going pitch my tent right here, spend the night, then go home tomorrow.”


“Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.  I’m awake.  I’m sorry you had to stop.”

“At least let me call your mom and dad.”

“No.  They had a going away party for me.  I’d feel like a total fuck up if I went home now.”

“Okay.  Do you want me to stay a while?  You seem disoriented.  If you hadn’t run out of gas, you….”

He looked at the wall of bark ahead of him and suddenly felt sorry for it.  For what would have happened to it.  “Yeah, I see it.  My guardian angel must have seen it too.”


Most people love music and lyrics.  Lyrics are poetry, so why wouldn’t people love lyrical prose including dialogue.  Dialogue from Casino Royale, the film is both clever, lyrical and character sharp.  On the train when Bond first meets Vesper, she asks him how he liked his lamb.  He answers, “Skewered.”  Later before they register at the hotel, he comments that she isn’t his type.  She answers, “Smart?” He quickly says, “Married.”  And of course the conversation about little fingers that comes later.  Their  dialogue is witty, rhythmic and symbolic.  People barely talk anymore, and when they do, it’s hardly meaningful.  Why not give your readers conversations  they’re not usually exposed to?  Clever conversations with meaningful words, laced with poetry.

Here’s an excerpt from The Gold Fish Bowl:

            “That’s why I’m here.  I want my kid, Lennon, to see some back bone in me.”

            “Oh, I think there’s back bone.  It needs some adjustments, but we can work on that.”

            “What about you?  What’s your bio?” 

            “I got my degree in New York, my doctorate in New Mexico and my calling in New Delhi.  I spent five years in India, then home again to practise.”

            “Do you treat a lot of angry housewives who have to handcuff themselves to their fridge doors before their husbands come home because they’re scared to death that Ms. Hyde will escape in front of the kids?”

            “You’re creative.  That’s good.  A risk taker.  That’s a bonus.”

            “I didn’t take risks the other day.”

            “Yes you did.  You got dressed, left the house and came here.  After what happened between you and your husband, that was a brave thing to do.”

            “I made a discovery this week.”


            “That I don’t want to be predictable any more.”

and from  A Life for a Life:  Book Two   from  The Austin Del Rio Files

“You’re growing up.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, the old Aus would have let himself into my apartment, walked into my bedroom and made funny faces about Tony’s brown bum, while he slept.”

“The old Aus would have done that?”

A strawberry slid down her chin that Aus caught with this thumb and pushed into Lindsay’s mouth.

“Love tames.  Love makes you respect the hard work of others.”

“Yeah, I see that now.  Jess whispered something to me before she left.”


“She said I made her believe in family.  The kind of home I have with Cassidy and my feelings for my mom.  She said she wanted to be part of it.”

“I can’t see you having that effect on a woman.”

“You obviously didn’t want that when we were together.”

“No, you’re so wrong. I did until you caught the scent of a dozen other women.  That helped me get over you real fast.”

“I thought we had an understanding.”

“We did, but I never thought you’d cheat on me. And I know that what I have with Tony is something we’d never have.  But I think you found it with Jess.”  She looked at the pastries.  “You’re spoiling me.”

“Just trying to stay human.”  He put his head on Linds’s pillowy belly.  The sun felt good on his skin.  A gust of wind blew through the fountain and misted them.  “Now I know how my plants feel.  I like it.”

“Me too.”

“Wanna get naked?”

“Want me to arrest you, Detective Del Rio?”

He stared into her glowing face.  “Have you picked out names yet?  I think I can hear its heartbeat.”

“What?  How could you possibly know something like that?”

Gently he rolled his head across her swollen baby bump.  “You’ve never had a gut this spongy.”

“Don’t tell anyone.  We might even do the wedding thing in June.”

He stretched out his hand.  “Grab on.  It’s too damp here.” He pulled her up and folded her in his arms.  “I’d be happy to be a god-dad.”

“A god-dad and a god.”

“I don’t want to be a god anymore.”


If I were a character in your book, would I be able to get a word in edgewise?  Writers have told me they have a hard time writing dialogue, and yet, readers love dialogue – want to listen in on characters’ conversations.  Characters have so much to say, but are silenced by rampaging narratives, leaving little space for them to communicate orally. Trust your characters’ thoughts and ability or disability to speak.  Let them develop their own voice, distinct from yours.  Once again, it’s a control thing – writers wanting censorship.  Give your characters the freedom to express themselves, stand back and witness what they get themselves into or out of, and simply listen to what they have to say.

Here’s a conversation from Threads that balances narration with dialogue and lets both Dr. Rossi and Alice, his patient speak independently of the writer:

He looked at the monitor and called her into his office.  She saw him an hour a week, unless she couldn’t sleep, then her dad would panic and make her do double time with the mind prick.

She held out the branch. “I come in peace.”  Then gave him the offering.

He studied her face as he pulled up a chair opposite her and started recording. “Think of it as a movie, and you’re the star.  You’ll be famous one day.”

“Are you my agent now?”  It was a like/hate relationship.  She hated how he thought he could do something for her, how he never cried for her, how he wore expensive clothes when she was heart-frayed, and she didn’t know why she liked him. Maybe because he was helping to keep her dad balanced, by taking her on as his patient.  Maybe because for fifteen years he was documenting her bizarre life in case one day she totally forgot who she was, and the good doctor would be there, pretending to save her.  She didn’t think he even liked her.

“I don’t want to be your agent.”  He recalled the last H.E.A.D. episode (hyper empathetic acute dreamopathy).  “It’s been months since the last coma.  You were dreaming you were in Efes when it happened? Right?  Where’d you go this time.?”


“Have imagination will travel.  Was it first class or economy?” And his mouth smirked into self-applause.

“Rossi, you’re an asshole.  My dad should be paying me to come here.”

“I was trying to be funny. I know it’s out of character, but I thought I’d try it before you throw me against the wall like you do every fucking session.  You don’t get it, Alice.  I’m the best, the very best.  I’m it.  I try to lighten things up, and you keep blowing out my candles.”

“That’s the problem.”

“What is?”

“Candles light your way in the dark.  Spacemen light mine.”  Rossi stared at her.  “It’s a metaphor, Rossi.  They’re not real spacemen.  They’re men and women, at least they look like men and women.  They live here and there. They have names and professions.  They live and die.  They know me better than I know myself.”

“Ally, yesterday your heart stopped, and orthodox medicine saved you.  Where were your space buddies then?”