Burn down the barn
A farmer wakes up and sees his barn is on fire. You’re writing the dialogue – what does he say? That was one of the questions the writer Jack Cady posed to us in his fiction class.
When I said in my earlier post that I knew nothing about fiction when I started Cady’s class, I meant I knew nothing. Well, I knew enough not to raise my hand.
I could see the hypothetical farmer clearly enough. Picture Iowa, Cady said. A farmer alone in his kitchen, a cup of coffee in his hand. It’s a beautiful fall day – because terrible things happen on beautiful days – and the sun is just coming up. Through the screen door, the farmer sees the flames. Now he speaks. What’s his line?
I kept my mouth shut. All I could think of was, “The barn’s on fire.”
Or worse, “Oh, no.”
Or worse still, “Wow, look at those flames.”
None of that made any freakin’ sense. The farmer was alone in his kitchen – who the hell was he talking to??? Plus, the reader already knows the barn is on fire.
So I sat there hoping I wouldn’t get called on. I remember the moment so vividly, a couple decades later, because it was one of those times when you come face to face with the depth of your own ignorance. And by you I mean me.
Instead, other people suggested lines, not much better than mine, which was okay with Cady. Play with it the way a child would play with it, was his mantra. Try things. Make mistakes.
After he heard our suggestions, he told us how dialogue has to reveal character, and then he gave us his line: “Done it, didn’t they?”
I was hooked. Four words and I knew how stubborn the farmer was. I knew about the enemies he had made and how much he would risk in the name of what was right. I even knew what kind of woman his wife would need to be to share a life with such a man.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then looking at draft dialogue that didn’t feel quite right, thinking “Done it, didn’t they?” And I still don’t always get it. On a good day, with enough caffeine, I can make characters move across a room. But how do you get them to talk? Still, at least I know what the standard is, and how to make mistakes.
Songs with great dialogue: Dylan's "Isis," and "Highlands." And my current favorite, Chuck Prophet's "Hot Talk." What am I leaving out?