Why don't you run up an alley and holler fish?

I was at the grocery store today. Since it's just a small store, there isn't a conveyor belt to put your groceries on, just a small platform about the size of two gallons of milk and a bag of Red Vines (standing on end.) That means that you have to wait until the person in front of you has been rung up before you can drop your groceries on the little ledge.

The man behind me had his arms full; he must be from the same camp as me, the I-only-need-milk-crap-I-also-need-eggs-oh-and-also-mayo-and-I-almost-forgot-bananas-are-those-Ding-Dongs-on-sale-I-don't-want-to-go-back-up-front-and-get-a-basket-dangit-hurryuphurryuphurryup-checker-outer-lady. As soon as my last can of nacho cheese had been cleared, he unloaded his food pile. He did it so quickly that the checker looked up, surprised and asked, "Is this all together, then?"

I, with my extraordinary ability to make all normal situations awkward, turned red and said, "No." Blush, blush, blush. Perhaps sensing my (not really, but seeming) embarrassment, the checker said, "Oh, okay...unless you WANT to pay for his, too."

"Hahaha" went the checker lady.

"Hahaha" went the overburdened man without a concrete grocery list.

"Hahaha...nooooo," said I in a weirdly sing-song, strangled voice that suggested I thought they really would make me pay for his groceries.

Then I stood there, marinating in the awkward silence I'd single-handedly created, wishing I could be more witty on my feet. Only as I walked away did I think of the comeback: "Only if he pays next time."


Okay, still not perfect, but better.

Anyway, it got me thinking about realistic dialogue in stories, and how much it bugs me when people get this witty banter back and forth and back and forth and backandforth, because yo, I never think of the right thing to say in front of people, much less the guy I'm crushing on. (My actual response one time when the cute guy in my class spoke directly to me: "Mehhrgplbbb." Followed by raucous laughter from the whole class.) Why can't we read more of that??

I'm pretty sure a whole book of two people hemming and hawing would get boring fast. And isn't it kind of therapeutic to get some snappy comebacks in when two of your characters are arguing?

There's an old Don Knotts movie called "The Ghost and Mister Chicken" that I love. Don Knotts plays, of course, a bumbling sort of guy and one of the things about him is that he's very tongue-tied when he gets nervous, which is pretty much the whole show. At one point, the mean guy yells, "Who do you think you are?" and he responds with, "Drop dead, that's who!" and then he storms off. I die laughing every time. He is also the mastermind behind, "Why don't you run up an alley and holler fish?"

I love that his character isn't putting the bad guys in their place. He's just a normal guy, trying to be brave but getting it all mixed up anyway. Making normal stuff awkward. My man. *fistbump*

So, the question is, how do you make sure your dialogue sounds realistic, without getting too ho-hum? Do you like it when characters are all quick and witty and snappy all the time?


Juliemybird said...

This is great. I loved your delayed comeback. And by "loved," I mean "laughed so loud my husband woke up to ask if I was okay." That's how you know it's good.

I think my favorite would be a mix, because there *are* some people in real life who are quick on their feet and obnoxiously witty (why couldn't *I* have thought of that?), but they work best when juxtaposed with "Drop dead, that's who," types, and vice versa. So... it's a draw for me. :F)

ali said...

Haha, this is great! And of course with Don Knotts in there. Fun!

One of my MC is not eloquent or witty. Most human interaction is a bit baffling to her. I let her be pretty stuck with comebacks and what to say just in general. Then everyone else can be a bit more natural. :) it IS a tough balance to strike!

Ruth Josse said...

Lol. For reals. I laughed out loud. I thought I was the queen of awkward, but it seems there are more like me out there. Yay:) Most of my comebacks are equivelant to when you were a kid and someone called you a name and you would say, "No, you are!" Lame-O.

There have been books I've read where the wit and banter between characters is so quick back and forth, it gives me a headache. Too much. Too annoying. I like a funny, but I like it to be authentic.

mooderino said...

i think there is a whole range of approaches to dialogue, and an understanding from audiences that there is a level of artifice to it. There's nothing as tedious as genuinely transcripted speech in an unedited form. For every hilarious moment, there's a bunch of moments that are not so much.

Ultimately it's not their dialogue that's the most important thing, rather what they're talking about and what each person in the conversation is trying to achieve.

Moody Writing

Lindsay N. Currie said...

This is no joke: you hit on one of my weakest areas. I'm solid with internal dialogue and character reflection as well as description, but my dialogue is always a work-in-process and I often rely on my co-author to dive in and make it more authentic. Great post!

Christine Tyler said...

I do love witty banter, but I feel like I experience it a lot in real life, and I often find myself drawn to people that amuse me, and therefore provide it non-stop.

BUT! I would say in dialogue, you can't let ALL your characters do it. They'll all start mushing their voices together and it'll sound practiced.

A good example of this happening is in the movie JUNO. As a matter of fact, if you haven't seen that movie, it's probably the best example of this mistake EVER. Juno herself is a super-sharp character. She comes up with quips all over the place, and you know what? I buy it. I like it. It makes me feel like she's smart and sassy. But then, everyone starts doing it. Her brain-dead 15-year-old best friend does it while wearing tacky glitter nailpolish. It makes the movie so unbelievable, and totally destroys what they were establishing with Juno's personality.

Yup. Check it out.

Pk Hrezo said...

Hey glad I found your blog... you are too cute. Love your witty voice in this post!
Bet you have some fun stories! :)

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

This is soooo me!! I never know what to say - especially when strangers are trying to be funny but I just don't get it or don't think it's funny. So I usually just smile awkwardly and try to get out of the conversation. This is why I was horrible at customer service. With that, my dialogue has that awkwardness too. It's definitely more realistic. Though maybe my characters figure out a bit better things to say in the moment than I would. Loved your post, as always!!