I was going for a hike during my lunch on a nearby trail. There’s a wonderful park with a stunning view of Mount Rainier just a block away from my office. The exercise is nice and the scenery is beautiful. It makes me feel like I’m travelling along a tree canopied path in a Tolkien forest, breathing in the warm scent of pine needles, blackberries, and leaves baked by the summer sun.
These walks also provide an opportunity to try out new dialogue.
The way I write, it’s rare for me to just sit down and—whoops—out comes pages of dialog. No. I spend hours thinking about a scene, playing it back and forth in my head like a movie so that when I go to my keyboard, I’m just transcribing what I’ve witnessed. Like a really thorough court stenographer who mixes their OCD with LSD.
Testing my dialogue is a part of my process. Is it something the character would say? In that situation? Is it something the reader would believe? I constantly mutter phrases and retorts to myself, listening for authenticity.
When I’m alone, I deliver the lines with the same intensity I see my characters using, like how I imagine Robert DeNiro reads his lines in a Hollywood trailer. I’m totally absorbed. Only, for me, it’s just going over a single line. Like a method actor cast as an extra, pouring over the deeper meaning of, “The mayor is on line one.”
So I’m walking along in Lothlórien, and the line is from my novel, ‘til Death. The scene involves Frank Rockwell coming home to break the news to his wife that he’s been murdered. She tells him that she wasn’t expecting him to die for at least another five years. I channel Frank—a hothead—and respond, “I’m only fifty-one and in my prime. I had plenty more than five years left. My great-grandfather Sherman lived to eighty-nine!”
Cut. Print. Perfect.
I nailed the delivery. The dialogue was pitch perfect for the scene and if the Academy had heard it, there’d be a golden statue waiting for me after that performance.
Only, the Academy didn’t hear it. But I could tell by the subdued laugh from around the bend that someone had. At first I was exhilarated. Yes! Confirmation. An unbiased listener heard my line and laughed.
That gave way to embarrassment as the couple turned the corner and saw a man in his mid-thirties walking by himself, shouting about being fifty-one in the past tense. My finger was even pointed up in the air like Jackie Gleason. They gave me a wiiiiide berth and I had to cut my walk short and get back to my office, hiding inside with blinds closed as a pair of orderlies in white uniforms looked for me, commitment papers in hand.
Situations like that make me thankful for tabletop gaming.
A good game of Dungeons and Dragons or Sheriff of Nottingham goes perfectly with my need to test out dialogue. The rapport with players is helpful and constructive. Unlike online multiplayer gaming, where most conversation can be summed up in a message I recently received after a strong showing in Star Wars Battlefront: “ur gay.”
But there are no such insults (to my face) when I’m Dungeon Master in a game of D&D! There, improvisation and delivery are an art form. The game improves because of it, and going all-in enriches the experience and encourages the other players to relax and join in the fun.
I can take a quip or joke from a book, season it with BBC accent, and test it with my guinea pigs—er, players—to see what works.
As a writer, this is a HUGE help. Especially when writing humor, as I do. Masterfully.
A comic is only as good as his audience’s response. Comics die a thousand deaths, honing their act by gauging its impact on the audience until it’s…good enough. The same thing goes with writing. You’ve probably heard an anecdote from a storyteller who is sure—SURE!—that a goldmine of belly laughs is coming. And then…lackluster deliver, flat punchline, polite smile, courtesy laugh, awkward silence.
Only it’s far worse with writing because the awkward silence is the kindle being powered down and, unless the reader is looking for a unique way to punish their children—“Now sit there while I read you more of Anspach’s book.” “Daddy, no!”—they’re unlikely to go back. Let alone buy the sequel (available now).
Role playing games give me a tremendous opportunity to test out my writing with real people. One I haven’t had since they threw me out of the retirement home.
Does the party break out laughing? Keep the line.
Do they repeat it like a catchphrase throughout the session? Put it on the cover.
Do they respond with silence before someone audibly sighs and says, “Soo…”? Send in a Beholder for a total party kill.
That’ll teach them.
Jason Anspach is the author of the 1950’s Paranormal Noire Comedy Series ‘til Death: The Rockwell Return Files. He’s also a cast member on the hilarious podcast, SciFi Writers Playing Old School D&D.
You can pick up ‘til Death, a book readers have called “Hauntingly Funny,” “a fun romp through a supernatural hard-boiled adventure, with plenty of laughs and adventure along the way,” and “not quite as funny as I was expecting it to be.”
This post is part of Blaugust 2016, an initiative to Blog throughout August. For more information visit the Tales of the Aggronaut Blog