a guide to writing
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.