bon mots and sparkling prose

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

 Dialogue is some of the most difficult stuff to write. Well, difficult if you want to do it really well and for it to sound both natural and powerful. It may seem like a paradox, but when dialogue sounds natural, it’s usually anything but. Good dialogue is a mix of craft, study, and a whole lot of understanding that some of the most important stuff is what you leave out. In other words, the back story; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Have you ever walked away from an argument then hours later came up with the perfect rejoinder? Good dialogue is like that. Good dialogue contains all the spiffy, swift, snarky words you’d say the first time around if you had the chance to work it all out first. Good luck with that.

Developing a skill for dialogue is something that requires patience. . .and practice. How do you practice? Listen. Read. Write. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of the best dialogue in the history of the planet. His characters spoke with grit, pathos, and with bone crunching honesty, and yours should, too. Read his stories and novels with an eye toward dialogue and see what you find.

Papa was also brilliant at character, plot, and conflict. For the purposes of this conversation, I urge you to carefully study how his characters speak to one another. My particular favorite Hemingway story is “Hills Like White Elephants” which as a piece consists almost entirely of dialogue so brilliant I want to cry when I read it. The other wonderful story by E. Hemingway is “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Ee-yikes, that man could write dialogue.

Part of his strength in dialogue comes from the fact that he didn’t feel the need to connect every dot in the storyline; he assumed that the reader was reasonably intelligent, and could piece it together.

You don’t need to worry about connecting everything. Your amazingly powerful subconscious does it for you. To test the theory for yourself, rent a movie like Sliding Doors or The Golden Compass and watch it. If you’ve never see these movies before, enjoy the story the first time through, let it wash over you as pure entertainment. Then, watch them a second time, listening for dialogue. Notice how the characters speak the way real people do, but better. On the third time through, you should know the story well enough by now to take a step back, and look at how the scenes are woven together.  Perhaps you notice that your own brain provided some of the connective tissue between scenes,  that significant pieces of information were not actually there, that your own subconscious provided those bridges between scene, dialogue, and plot. It’s interesting how the brain works to make sense of what it sees and hears, providing those little leaps of logic between one frame and the next.

You can do this as a writer, too. Begin to notice how people speak to one another. Very often, they do not follow threads of conversation in a smooth and linear way. One person speaks, and maybe the other listens, maybe they just say what’s on their mind, like the following example:

Devon walked into the clubhouse and gravitated toward Elise. “How are you,” he asked. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Elise swept a fringe of bangs  from her eyes.  “It’s so hot today.”

“Did you see the Connollys won the golf tournaments? Figures.”

“I’d give anything for a lemonade.”

This may sound like an ersatz example, but I challenge you to prove me wrong. This will involve eavesdropping, so prepare to have some fun. Now, the first thing you do is take your journal down to the local café, burger joint, or java hut. Find yourself a table, place an order, then open your journal.  Try to be subtle about it so your neighbors don’t realize you’re recording their conversation, but you’re going to do just that. Write down what they say. You don’t have to be looking at them, in fact it’s probably better if you don’t. Listen to the way they speak. Listen to the cadence, the word choices, idioms, the patterns of speech.

At the risk of sounding like a linguistics geek (yeah, yeah, whatev), I adore the way regional and cultural influences affect the way we speak to one another. When you realize  that only 10 percent of our total communication is the words we use, and then you look at how the words we use influence meaning and nuance, you can see how important dialogue is.  Forget about trying to write accents, that’s just annoying. But focus on the types of words that are used.

Words are worlds. Anyone with a teenager knows what it is to learn a new language, weekly, just to communicate with the people with whom you share groceries and a living space. Talk to anyone older than sixty, and you’ll be introduced to wonderful idioms that you may never have heard before. My personal favorite from a recent conversation is, “he couldn’t tell his butt from a hot rock.” I still chuckle when I think of that one.

Word choices contain emotional and cultural weight. Think about it. When you use the word “grenade” do you think, ‘oh, good’? Probably not. But if you use the word ‘bride’ it probably generates feelings of love and romance.  Words carry weight.

Some idioms reflect a time in history, such as “Give me a ring.” This used to mean “Give me a call,” but since telephones now come equipped with ring tones and all kinds of sound effects, the term “ring” is just a piece of jewelry.

As a word geek, I am constantly amazed when nouns are used as verbs, as in “Jeff texted me last night We’re breaking up.” Once, ‘text’ was a noun meaning a compilation of words.  Now, ‘to text’ means to send a clever message via any number of electronic devices.  Our language is a living organism, changing all the time, as evidenced by how we speak to one another.

The best dialogue has the primary purpose of moving the plot or story, forward. Period. It isn’t used to describe what someone is wearing, it isn’t to provide a blow-by-blow description of last night’s fight. It’s a way to show your reader where they’re going next, but in, you know, shorthand.

So, pay attention. Listen. Eavesdrop. Hey – it’s for the sake of your journal! All I ask is that you be discrete.

21 thoughts on “bon mots and sparkling prose

  1. This is a brilliant model of excellent writing. I keep forgetting what a wonderful writer you are though I’ve followed your writing career for 30+ years. Your use of interwoven examples is inspiring.

    • You know I adore your feedback. . .good, bad, and indifferent. I am the writer I am because I have brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate readers. Like you.

  2. Good advice. I especially admire his Clean, Unlighted Place. You’re right, great dialogue sometimes makes a dance of beating around the bush, and other times it rings like a gong (tolls like a bell?). And, along with listening, I’m learning to speak the words aloud to hear them clearly– I think if I were an actor, I”d probably write dialogue better.

  3. Thankyou so much for your interesting and considered ‘post’. I am a complete neophyte when it comes to the ‘blogosphere’ and barely know how to drive my blog yet. So I have pulled over and parked so that I might do a little promiscuous research on what others are doing. Yours is the first one that held my attention for longer than the first two paragraphs. Albeit I had only seen about four others but as I consider myself a Luddite with the attention span of a gold fish I was in need of a quick hook. Also I identify strongly with the myth of Persephone. Innocence , temptation and avarice have all shaped my life bearing cyclical consequences of feast and famine, death and renewal. Hemingway! I have not much read him but one of my dreams is to go to Cuba to visit his home there. I have noted your recommendations and will look for them at the library. Cheers, mlsaple.

    • We are so glad to have a new visitor to the salon, being huge fans of the conversation about the art and avarice of writing. We’ve been scribbling and talking about scribbling for eons. It was only recently that we decided to go public with our passion for stories, language, and nuance; recognizing as we do that we might go to the grave if we held our collective breath waiting for permission from the traditional publishing world. So here we are. We are glad you are here, too. Keep in touch. Stop back in from time to time. We love our virtual salon, where there is room for everyone. As a side note, I had a chance to visit Hemingway’s home in Idaho. He worked there at a stand-up desk. Such a cool idea, and it eliminates the need to navigate a chair in order to pace while writing. Genius. Cheers to you. Cynthia

  4. Now that u mention this, the other day, while sitting at my local wimpy, drinking a nice cafe late, i heard these bunch of woman talking. What struck me was what they where talking about, not make up or breast implants or the normal chit chat woman normally do. NO, they where talking about motor vehicles. I was totally shocked…

  5. Pingback: Sunday Ramblings: from Golf to Feminists | writersclubkl

  6. “I really liked your post on developing a good ear for dialogue, Cynthia,” Michael wrote, weary after days searching for great literary blogs, without success. “Why am I writing what I think in my head?” he thought to himself, perhaps bamboozled by the radiation from his iMac screen, or, more likely, thrown from his writing horse by the sheer bewilderment of his search for meaning on the internet.

    Cynthia read Michael’s post, and replied – ” …

    • “Dear Michael,” Cynthia replied. “Thank you for affirming what before was only suspected. It’s shocking isn’t it, how many bad blogs there are in blogville?” It was a beautiful, collective, creative pinwheel of random reckless thoughts which she alternately scorned and devoured. “But really,” she said after some refection, “I’m just a writer practicing my craft. What do I know?”

  7. Great piece! Dialogue is indeed one of the hardest parts of fiction. To make it sound natural, but not too much so, and fit the character, advance the story, etc. etc.–just so much goes into it! Nice blog =)

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