Talk to Me

dialogue in neon
Bruce Nauman, Double Poke in the Eye II, Tate Modern. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Last week, a student asked me to talk about writing dialogue. She felt that her own dialogue was stilted, created solely for the purpose of completing her writing exercise for the week.

I said something vague and probably wholly unsatisfactory, although this student was too polite to say so. I think I mumbled something like: use dialogue when it’s the most efficient way to convey your information. When the reader needs to hear the words coming out of the mouth of one of your characters.

After class, I went home and started looking at my writing books. As I had hoped, there were plenty of better answers than my flubbed attempt. So here’s what I learned about writing dialogue.

Impossible Dialogue

cover Reading Like a Writer
Image source: HarperCollins

Legend has it that Truman Capote could eavesdrop on a conversation on the street, rush back to his hotel room, and transcribe that conversation verbatim. If true, that transcript would have been littered with stammering, grammatical errors, and the cliches and banalities that constitute so much of our everyday conversation.

Francine Prose is an author and creative writing teacher. She recalls being taught to avoid actual speech. Instead, her characters should speak in fluent, economic and certain terms.

The idea, presumably, is that fictional dialogue should be an “improved,” cleaned-up, and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. Better than “real” dialogue.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (Harper Perennial 2007)

So how do you write this new and improved dialogue?

Bad Dialogue

First, you need to know what bad dialogue looks like. John Gardner would be happy to say. He’s an academic and a novelist as well known for Grendel, a re-imagining of the Beowulf saga from the monster’s side, as for The Art of the Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

Craft book on writing
Image source: PenguinRandomHouse

Gardner must have been a fearsome teacher. He gets quite grumpy in The Art of Fiction complaining about the common errors that newbie novelists make.

I mean things like, in dialogue, “um, uh . . .” — sometimes used by good writers in ways that don’t stand out and distract from the fictional dream, but usually used by amateurs in ways that make the reader tear his hair.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Vintage Books 1991)

Francine Prose’s pet peeve is exposition framed by quotation marks. That is to say, an obvious and awkward attempt by the author to convey information in the form of stiff, unlikely, artificial conversation. Here is one hilarious example.

“Hi, Joe,”
“Nice to see you again, Sally.”
“What have you been doing, Joe?”
“Well, Sally, as you know, I’m an insurance investigator. I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I’m unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week, on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like.”

Prose

This is backstory disguised as dialogue. Imagine the real-life Joe. Not even the biggest loser would describe himself in such a bald-faced fashion.

Multitasking

We humans are devious creatures. When we talk, it’s often with more than a simple message in mind. We may be trying to make an impression, extract information, achieve some goal or all of the above. Rather than come straight out and say what we want, we sidle and whisper and nudge.

Think also about how we listen (if at all) to what another is saying. Body language, an abrupt switch of topic, and a pregnant silence are also part of the conversation. When we talk, we send and receive a vast array of signals, not all of which are verbal.

If you want to know how 5 year olds talk, go to a playground. To create the patois of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead listened to archival recordings of ex-slaves. Actual speech is pretty complex.

Once I assigned a class to eavesdrop on strangers and transcribe the results. I decided to try it myself, in a university coffee shop. Within moments I overheard a young woman telling her male companion about a dream in which she saw Liza Minnelli arrayed in white robes and a starry crown, dressed as the Queen of Heaven. What made the conversation doubly engaging was that the girl seemed to be romantically attracted to her friend, and was using her story as a means of seduction, unaware that he was, insofar as I could tell, gay. This fact was not unrelated to his lively interest in Liza Minnelli, yet another connection that his companion was preferring not to make.

Prose

The best sort of conversation involves communication and miscommunication at multiple levels. So, too, is dialogue a form of multitasking.

Good Dialogue

What are these various tasks that dialogue can achieve? Think first about setting. Most works of fiction start with some form of description, say, of the main character.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Jane Austen, Emma

You can also open a fictional work with action, the way every James Bond movie starts with an explosion or a free-fall.

It’s rare to find a story, short or long, that opens with dialogue. But this presents no obstacle for a master storyteller.

Idiomatic dialogue
Last Stories by William Trevor. Photo credit: Karen Kao

‘The Brahms?” she said. ‘Shall we struggle through the Brahms?’
The boy, whose first lesson with Miss Nightingale this was, said nothing. But gazing at the silent metronome, he smiled a little, as if the silence pleased him. Then his fingers touched the piano keys and when the first notes sounded Miss Nightingale knew that she was in the presence of genius.

William Trevor, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” in Last Stories (Viking 2018)

This is not, strictly speaking, a dialogue because the student doesn’t respond. But no answer is expected nor is any required. The smile is enough. As Gardner notes, gesture is a part of any real dialogue.

Characterization

Dialogue and action can be one and the same (“I do.”). It can and often does advance the plot (“Let’s kill him.” “OK, you do it.”) William Trevor is a master of idiomatic dialogue, the kind that manages to define a setting and a character all in one go.

‘Well, there’s that if you’d want it,’ the crippled man said. ‘It’s a long time waiting for attention. You’d need tend the mortar.’
The two men who had come to the farmhouse consulted one another, not saying anything, only nodding and gesturing. Then they gave a price for painting the outside walls of the house and the crippled man said it was too much. He quoted a lesser figure, saying that had been the cost the last time. The men who had come looking for work said nothing. The tall one hitched up his trousers.
‘We’ll split the difference if that’s the way of it,’ the crippled man said.
Still not speaking, the two men shook their heads.
‘Be off with you in that case,’ the crippled man said.

William Trevor, “The Crippled Man”

Through his speech, we get an immediate sense of the crippled man. Impatient, irascible, penny-pinching. We don’t get every line of speech the man gives, just the parts we need. And through their silence, we get an impression of the two men who’ve come in hope of work. They’ve learned

to pretend not to understand, to frown and simulate confusion because, in any conversation, it was convenient sometimes to appear to be at a loss.

Idem

There, in a nutshell, the art of dialogue.

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