One of my favorite old films is the 1951 version of “The Thing From Another World,” which was most likely directed by the famous Howard Hawks, even though Christian Nyby is the credited director. One aspect of the film I enjoy most is the crisp, natural sounding dialogue. Here’s what the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) says regarding Hawks and dialogue:
Hawks' genius as a director also manifested itself in his direction of his actors, his molding of their line-readings going a long way toward making his films outstanding. The dialog in his films often was delivered at a staccato pace, and characters' lines frequently overlapped, a Hawks trademark. The spontaneous feeling of his films and the naturalness of the interrelationships between characters were enhanced by his habit of encouraging his actors to improvise.
Alan Sorkin (“West Wing,” “The American President,” etc) is the modern master of rapid dialogue, although Late Night with Seth Meyers once did a great skit skewering his tropes. Hey, we all have tropes, right?
Now Hawks and Sorkin dealt with performed dialogue in movies and TV, whereas I’m writing words on the page that the reader will have to ‘hear’ my characters speak. Luckily my editors taught me early to write the way we’d like to talk, without all the hesitations, ums, likes, repetitions, etc.
The dialog for my science fiction is different than the dialog for my ancient Egyptian fantasy romances. I don’t, as a rule, try to mimic the way the Egyptians actually spoke, partly because I’ve never been in 1550 BCE Egypt, so I’ve never heard the cadences. I try for dialogue that gives the impression of another time and a different set of ground rules, however. Here’s a short snippet of dialog from Ghost of the Nile, between a warrior and the goddess Ma’at:
“Excellent, my warrior, you’ve wasted no time. I see you understand the situation to some extent, even though the entire scroll of problems has yet to reveal itself to you. What assistance do you require from me?”
He swallowed hard and shifted into parade rest stance, relying on his military discipline to handle the shock of a goddess coming at his request. “I remember a pond here, fed by a cold spring from deep within the ground, my lady. I would see the spring restored, enabling the people of my ancestral home to irrigate the fields and water the beasts more easily while I work to solve the issues.”
Eyebrows raised, Ma’at gazed at her surroundings. “I’m hardly a goddess of the Nile or of water. You might need help from my sister Anuket or the Crocodile God Sobek himself perhaps.”
Wondering what sort of help Ma’at had anticipated he’d ask for during this assignment, he said, “I wasn’t aware the Great One Sobek concerns himself with any water but the Nile. We’ve no special ties to him in this province, unfortunately. A small temple in the city, but nothing of note.”
And here’s a snippet from my latest scifi, Star Cruise: Marooned. The conversation is between the heroine, a cruise ship staffer, and the hero, an ex-Special Forces operator:
“We’re marooned now, so there is no crew versus passenger,” she said. “All consumables are
“All right then, as long as no one is docking my pay.” He took the mug with a laugh. “I’ve missed the real stuff since I left the Teams. Special Forces gets their own allotment. Too pricey to drink much in my new civilian life.”
She acknowledged the shared joke from yesterday with a raised eyebrow, and sipped her coffee, but refused to be distracted. “Talk to me. Why are you urging me to move these people somewhere else? And where would we go?”
He leaned against the counter. “We can assume whatever reason the TDJ captain had for leaving was compelling.”
“And no sign of Drewson returning.” He sipped the hot drink. “The two facts together suggest to me our ship is gone.”
“Gone? You mean jumped into hyperspace?”
“Could be.” He paused. Meg thought he seemed to be struggling with some inner decision whether to share more of his concerns, so she waited. After a moment, Red said, “The Far Horizon could have been destroyed by hostiles.”
“An enemy incursion in this Sector?” Meg blinked, trying to assimilate the concept. “Last time I heard any news, the Mawreg were at least two Sectors away, and being pushed back all along the front.”
“I don’t have any current intel, been out of the Teams too long, but the government never tells civilians the full story about anything.” He shook his head. “The fact that the rangers were pulled out of here says a lot to me….”
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was listening to the two talented actors who narrated the audiobook version of Escape from Zulaire, reading scenes where the two characters they were ‘playing’ had conversation. It was nearly as good as watching a movie of the book, the way they took my words off the pages and interacted.
Dialogue – the essential ingredient, appropriately tuned for the story you’re trying to tell!
OK, here's the Late Night Sorkin skit: