Paula Bernstein was the featured reader.
Paula Bernstein is a physician, a scientist and the author of the Hannah Kline Mystery Series: Murder in the Family, Lethal Injection, Private School, The Goldilocks Planet, In Vitro and Honeymoon. Like her main character Hannah Kline, Paula has spent her professional career as a practicing obstetrician gynecologist. In addition to her medical mystery series, her short story, “On Call for Murder,” was published in LAst Resort, the 2017 Sisters in Crime Anthology. Learn more at www.HannahKlineMysteries.
Valerie C. Woods – “Screenwriting Dialogue Tips Novelists Can Steal”
By Shannon Muir Broden
Screenwriter, publisher, author and educator Valerie C. Woods wrote the middle grade mystery book KATRIN’S CHRONICLES: THE CANON OF JACQUELÉNE DYANNE, VOL. 1, founded the independent publisher BooksEndependent, has written for television shows such as Touched by an Angel, and has adapted novels for the screen. She spoke to Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and shared ways to think about dialogue that are usually associated with screenwriting but can also be applied when thinking about how characters sound when “speaking” on the printed page.
Growing up, Valerie read Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, and overall a lot of her choices were influenced by her older sister, whom she looked up to. “Whatever my older sister read, I had to read,” Valerie told the audience. One year, she couldn’t figure out a gift to get her sister, so she wrote her a story about them as kids, which she then followed with several other adventures. This became the basis for her mystery book.
Regarding dialogue and the struggle to make people sound different on the page, Valerie draws from the teachings of her late, good friend Syd Field. A key point she stressed from Field’s teachings is that “[d]ialogue is a function of character” (Field, SCREENPLAY, p. 173). She also emphasized that “you should be able to read a script or story without names and know who is talking.” To use an example from mystery fiction, Woods encouraged examining Holmes and Watson and pointed out that just reading their dialogue makes it immediately clear who is speaking, due to their history and life experiences. Other elements to use can include nuances of speech (such as a lisp or a French accent being indicated through word spelling), different cadence in how dialogue reads, or the use (or non-use) of contractions.
Syd Field calls out several purposes for dialogue in his book SCREENPLAY (p. 173), which Valerie expanded upon. Dialogue:
– moves the story forward;
– communicates facts and information to the reader;
– reveals character;
– establishes character relationships;
– makes your characters real, natural, and spontaneous;
– reveals the conflicts of your story and characters;
– reveals the emotional states of your characters; and
– comments on the action.
Valerie reminded the audience that if dialogue doesn’t move the story forward in any of the above ways, it needs to be cut. She encouraged people to overwrite to find their character’s voice, then cut back as needed to ultimately serve one or more of the purposes above, as “the story is still revealing itself to you.” As to when dialogue is appropriate, sometimes it’s important not to have people speaking, as Valerie suggested silence can “reveal what people say and what they didn’t say.” Ultimately, “it all goes back to knowing who your people are and what they’ve experienced to make them the way they are” as “what we say defines us.”
In terms of adapting book dialogue to movie dialogue, she suggested comparing books and movies to see what was kept and what was removed, citing THE GODFATHER as a good example, but pointing out that even if you throw away what’s in the book, writers should “be true to the book” when doing adaptations.
Additional advice Valerie offered included encouraging people to take acting classes to help get a feel for how other people act and speak, or taking improv.