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Writing for a Memorable Performance

February 26, 2010

This week there’s been quite a bit of valuable advice on writing dialog from my fellow Wicked Writers. And, there certainly are a lot of books written on the subject, as Steve pointed out. Oh, and google “writing good dialog” and you’ll get back 17,300,000 search results. Yikes! I have to say it’s made me take a second, or should I say fifteenth look at the dialog I’ve written.

Now it’s my turn to add my two cents, and deciding what to write has been challenging, to say the least. Then it came to me while watching American Idol, when Simon Cowell said, for probably the five hundredth time, “That was a forgettable performance.”

Whether on stage, screen or in a book, dialog is just another part of a performances intent on entertaining an audience. Right? So you can follow all the rules for writing good dialog, but if the delivery is forgettable, the reader won’t hesitate to trade in your novel for another selection.

To further my point, when you read these quotes, what do you hear and see in your mind’s eye?

“You talkin’ to me?”

“I coulda been a contender.”

“E.T. phone home.”

“…Bond. James Bond.”

“I’ll be back.”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“There’s no place like home.”

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“I see dead people.”

And the list goes on…

Even though each quote is only five words or less, I personally heard the character’s voice and relived the background scene from each movie, and I’m sure you did too.

Dialog comes to me in the voice, personality, accent and tone of the character as I write. From there, I show what’s going on around the dialog, striving to create moments for the reader that are just like reading one of those movie quotes. If I can create even one moment as memorable as Judy Garland clicking her heels and saying, “There’s no place like home,” I’ll go to my grave a happy writer.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2010 8:30 am

    Great post, Wendy. You’ve got me wondering about memorable lines from novels though, not just movies? I can only think of Moby Dick right now but I’m only on my first cup of coffee.

    And I agree, the amount of information out there can be overwhelming, even a hindrance at times, no?

    • February 26, 2010 10:10 am

      Considering I’m not one to remember quotes off the top of my head, it was much easier finding the movie quotes that had an impact on me. Loved that only five words could provoke such memories too. But like you, it really got me thinking about quotes from memorable books I’ve read. So maybe it would be fun to add them as comments here today.

      Here’s a start:

      “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” — Catch 22

      From Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

      “You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock
      with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
      “Why, what did she tell you?”
      “I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”

      And this is from Crime and Punishment. Replace shouted vehemently with said. Does it have the same effect?

      “You’re crazy,” Clevinger shouted vehemently, his eyes filling with tears.
      “You’ve got a Jehovah complex.”

  2. February 26, 2010 10:17 am

    Great post, Wendy. Now, I’ll have to go back to “Land of the Blind” and come up with a snappy one-liner (by the way, only Sean Connery really pulled off the Bond line).

    Oh and may I add another movie quote I always remember, especially when dealing with those whose joke-making ability is less than stellar:

    Kirstie Alley in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” —

    “Humor — a difficult concept.”

    • February 26, 2010 11:31 am

      Can’t agree with you more on Sean Connery 😉 Although Daniel Craig sure is giving him a run for his money.

      Wrath of Khan…been years since I’ve seen that movie.

  3. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    February 26, 2010 11:34 am

    Love the quotes! I have been trying to remember any memorable quotes from books that I have read but then I realized even though I thought it was a memorable quote, doesn’t mean you guys would. (I tend to read stuff that isn’t so “mainstream” or “well known” – I’m a sucker for the underdog.)

    I tried to think of a memorable line in my own novels and I couldn’t think of any either! I was suddenly very disappointed with myself that in 7 novels, I did not have a single memerable line (despite the fact that I have every line memorized!) But, hopefully someone else out there will find it memorable. That is why it is always a good idea to have an extra set of eyes on your work – they can pick out stuff that you can’t (like boring or memorable lines of dialogue).

    I guess the closest thing I have to a line is in “Adventures of Ryn & Ciyme” where Ciyme, a kitten-sized pink dragon says to her human pet, “At least I didn’t try to eat you.”

    • February 26, 2010 3:49 pm

      When you get your worked reviewed by readers you’ll find they will be the ones to tell you their favorite lines. I was pleasantly surprised when a reviewer on Goodreads, in a private email to me, said some of her favorites in mine were:

      A girl can forgive a lot after some fornicating, two great orgasms and a blood chaser.

      or

      I can drink liquids but don’t need much. The idiot that thought vampires don’t use the bathroom should be shot. Seriously, where would all the blood go?

      or

      “You can’t go forward from this point, lad. Not without some conditions. We’re at the spot where you swear allegiance to me or I rip your head off and bury you in the north corner. Which is it to be?”

      She went on to list a few more, even quoting entire paragraphs to me–it was amazing! While my book was not the BEST book in the genre she had ever read, she found it engaging, a page turner, and said she’d gladly recommend it to others when it came out. What more could a newbie writer hope for?

      In the end, you never know what will stick out in a reader’s mind. The fact that any of my words made an impression on her, a strong enough one that she looked them up to type them out exact in an email to me, made my day to say the least!

      I like your line, Harley. And I think you’ll be surprised which ones will be the “memorable” ones with readers!

      • March 2, 2010 8:58 pm

        Gotta agree with C.J. And, I know that when I write a witty one-liner that I love, I really hope the reader loves is as much as I do. But when you read quotes from books that you haven’t read, they don’t necessarily have the same effect when you haven’t gotten to know the characters or story line.

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  1. Writing for a Memorable Performance « By W. J. Howard

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