Writer’s Block – dialogue

by Diane Grant

I’ll finish with Walter Kerr’s demonstration of  good dialogue – the difference between general language and the way we speak. He says that detail, detail, and more detail is what you are after and quotes two different passages from plays by John Steinbeck – Burning Bright and Of Mice and Men.

I’m putting it in here mostly because I can never read the excerpt from Of Mice and Men without crying.  It’s that good!

Burning Bright is about a man who is afraid he can’t have children and he’s talking to a friend:

JOE SAUL: A man can’t scrap his blood-line, can’t snip the thread of his immortality. There’s more than just memory, more than my training and the remembered stories of glory and the forgotten shame of failure. There is a trust imposed to hand my line over to another, to place it like a thrush’s egg in my child’s hand. You’ve given your bloodline to the twins, Friend Ed. But I….

FRIEND ED: Maybe you should go to doctors. There might be a remedy you haven’t thought of.

JOE SAUL: What do they know? There is some dark curse on me and I feel it.

FRIEND ED: On you alone, Joe Saul? Do you feel singled out, pinned up alone? It’s time we sing this trouble out into the air and light, else it will grow like a cancer in your mind. Rip off the cover. Let it out. Maybe, you’re not alone in your secret cave…

JOE SAUL: I know. I’m guess I’m digging like a mole into my own darkness. Of course, Friend Ed, I know it’s a thing that can happen to anyone, in any place or time. And maybe all these have the secret locked up in loneliness.

Steinbeck wrote another play about loneliness and friendship, Of Mice and Men:

His characters, George and Lennie are eating dinner.

GEORGE: There’s enough beans for four men.

LENNIE: I like ‘em with ketchup.

GEORGE: Well, we ain’t got any. Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God Almighty, if I was alone, I could live so easy. I could go get a job of work and no trouble. No mess…and when the end of the month come, I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why I could stay in a cat-house all night. I could eat any place I want. Order any damn thing.

LENNIE: I didn’t want no ketchup.

GEORGE: I could do that every damn month. Get a gallon of whiskey or be in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool. And what have I got? I got you. You can’t keep a job and you lose me every job I got!

LENNIE: I don’t mean nothing, George.

GEORGE: Just keep me shovin’ all over the country, all the time. And that ain’t the worst – you get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out. It ain’t bad people that raises hell. It’s dumb ones. You crazy son of a bitch, you keep me in hot water all the time. You just want to feel that girl’s dress. Just wanta to pet it like it was a mouse. Well, how the hell’d she know you just want to feel her dress? How’d she know you’d just hold onto it like it was a mouse?

LENNIE: I didn’t mean to, George?

GEORGE: Sure you didn’t mean to. You didn’t mean for her to yell bloody hell, either. You didn’t mean for us to hide in the irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us with guns. Alla time it’s something you didn’t mean. God damn it, I wish I could put you in a cage with a million mice and let them pet you.

LENNIE: George?

GEORGE: What do you want?

LENNIE: I was only foolin’, George. I don’t want no ketchup. I wouldn’t eat no ketchup if it was right here beside me.

GEORGE: If they was some here you could have it. And if I had a thousand bucks I’d buy ya a bunch of flowers.

Walter Kerr says, “The difference in the two is in the words. In the first, the words remind us of nothing real: the second is specific and the words crackle.”

So I’m looking for that moment that crackles, that puts down that first sentence, that leads me to a protagonist and an antagonist and a struggle between them. That leads to me a story.

People advise me, “Doesn’t matter what it is. Write a line a day.” “Take a walk.” “Meditate.” “When you are most frustrated, that’s when the ideas will come.” “It happens to everybody.”

So I think I’ll have a glass of wine and watch Chopped.

Could work!


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