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All of Leonard’s dialogue contributes to characterization and story.Here is a standard exchange: It sounds so natural, yet is lean and meaningful.“I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. In the movie , Moe Greene is angry that a young Michael Corleone is telling him what to do.I pray for you all day long, Harold.” Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate. He might have said, “I made my bones when you were in high school!He’ll keep at it until the engine sounds just the way he wants it to. When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. You’ll make it sparkle later, but first you must get it down on paper.This technique will allow you to come up with lines you never would have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time.But I think you’ll agree this exchange is immediately more interesting and suggestive of currents beneath the surface than the first example. Like the old magic trick ads used to say, “You’ll be pleased and amazed.” A powerful variation on the sidestep is silence. “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. It’s just to let the air in.” The girl did not say anything.
While some direct response is fine, your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious: I don’t really know what is going on in this scene (incidentally, I’ve written only these four lines of dialogue). The point is there are innumerable directions in which the sidestep technique can go. Look at a section of your dialogue and change some direct responses into off-center retorts.
Another member of the class was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. You can improvise just as easily by doing a Woody Allen. I am suggesting you do the same thing (in the privacy of your own home, of course).
When I asked him what he was doing there, he said improvisational work was a tremendous exercise for learning to write dialogue. Make up a scene between two characters in conflict. Go back and forth, changing your actual physical location.
He uses the same technique in this well-known scene between mother and son in the story “Soldier’s Home”: “God has some work for every one to do,” his mother said.
“There can’t be no idle hands in His Kingdom.” “I’m not in His Kingdom,” Krebs said.