Craft explored: Dialogue

Ugh. Dialogue. Reading it. Writing it. Is there any good way to use it? I intend to explore this literary device and how we can work to improve (and be more critical about) what is often a writer’s Achilles’ heel.

The gist of it is: People talk to each other and so should your characters.

When thinking of strong dialogue writing in fiction, very few examples immediately jump to mind. Many writers choose to shy away from dialogue-heavy scenes—or, when they do tackle them head-on, end up relying on worn-out clichés and abnormally insightful sentiments from their characters. If you’ve ever listened to two (or more) people talk, there are few instances where anyone manages to effectively and concisely convey exactly what they’re trying to say as they are trying to say it. No, we often fumble with our words, say things that are awkward or perhaps not quite what we mean. Then later we replay these experiences and realize—too late—all the things we should have said in the moment. It’s tempting to write characters who are always capable of saying exactly what they mean, but that kind of writing becomes boring and predictable and it reduces the possibility of characters misunderstanding one another, hiding their true feelings, or other communication problems that lead to juicy conflicts in our narratives.

The point is not that dialogue has to be long and ramble-y in order to approach realism. Reading that kind of dialogue, littered with “like”s and “um”s and “so”s, would be exhausting. The point is that more focus needs to be given to the subtextual elements of dialogue—those things we say to each other without ever actually saying them. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of dialogue writing is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” See the sample below:

            “I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
            “Then what will we do afterward?”
            “We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
            “What makes you think so?”
            “That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”
            The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
            “And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
            “I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”
            “So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

            “Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

There are a few things to note in this passage. The first is the importance of the subtext of this conversation. Neither the “girl” (woman) or the man are saying outright what it is they’re talking about: the woman is considering getting an abortion. This is one of the ways people communicate with one another—they talk around things, approach them from different angles so they never have to say the actual words out loud. Typically in a scene, this kind of purposeful evasion can only last for so long before someone reaches their emotional breaking point and finally everything is spilled for everyone to see (including the reader). This typically occurs at a dramatic climax. Non-climactic evasive scenes are at their best when they are kept relatively brief.

The second thing that’s important to notice here is how Hemingway layers meaning in his dialogue. There are subtle cues about the gravity of this couple’s decision, some of which are conveyed through gesture, some through dialogue, and all of which point to something that is unspoken and meaningful in the story—something that is not being communicated from one character to another, but that is being communicated about these characters to the reader. We realize that the couple is approaching the issue of the abortion with completely different viewpoints, however the characters seem not to have the same degree of lucidity. There is the unspoken thing itself (the abortion), then there are the unspoken feelings about the unspoken thing. This is a strong example of dialogue doing a lot of heavy-lifting in a narrative. What might have taken paragraphs to unpack from a narratorial point of view is communicated (subtly) in less than two hundred words.

Another excellent space to explore dialogue writing is in the theatre. Plays are nothing but dialogue. Dialogue and physical gesture. Those are the principle story-telling tools on stage. Watching a play can remind you how embodied conversation is. People fidget, they touch their hair, their face. They pace around rooms, they stand up and pour a drink, they stroll over to the window, they pick at scabs, they bite their lips. These forms of communication shouldn’t be abandoned in storytelling just because we’re moving from an embodied space to the page. Unlike actors, however, characters in a piece of fiction aren’t going to move around on their own. The author must step in and manipulate them like marionettes.

These physical gestures come in very handy when working with the pacing of a scene of dialogue. When writing dialogue, it is helpful to construe the scene in real time. So, if a character takes a long pause in the middle of a conversation, that pause must translate on the page for the reader in order to build tension. Take the following two examples:

“I have something to tell you.” Martha paused. “I’m moving. To Japan.”

“I have something to tell you.” Martha pushed a piece of hair behind her ear and looked at the floor. “I’m moving.” She took a deep breath. “To Japan.”

Already there’s more drama in this moment. In the time it takes the reader to scan through the gesture in between the dialogue, they too are waiting for what Martha is about to reveal. Comedic timing can work much the same way—incorporating well-timed beats of gesture can provide some much-needed comic relief in a scene. Good dialogue writing gives us access to these scenic moments as fiction writers. No longer do we have to wait for the movie adaptation of a novel to get that feeling of suspense, tension, timing. We can create it ourselves on the page!

A few other quick points on effective dialogue writing:

  • People each have their own unique styles of speaking. Your characters should too.
  • Not everything needs to be articulated. If it seems superfluous, it probably is. Take it out.
  • Most conversations aren’t naturally linear. Some conversations (especially arguments) wind around and shoot off on tangents. These kinds of conversational trajectories don’t often make logical sense, but they can have thematic coherence.
  • If you really want a feel for realistic dialogue, record yourself having a conversation with someone and then transcribe it.
  • Don’t take it too seriously! Dialogue is so many things—dramatic, funny, touching, strange—let it be what it needs to be in the moment. Let it be playful and give your characters an opportunity to express themselves and show off their personalities.

Dialogue writing exercises:

  1. Write a scene that includes a shift that is conveyed only (or primarily) through dialogue. Try not to rely on characters simply narrating events themselves. The shift should come because of the conversation, not just be revealed by it.
  2. Write a scene that utilizes nonverbal communication to suggest a shift. Include as little narratorial explanation as possible and instead rely on the body language of the characters to convey story. Bonus if you can convey the shift with very little spoken dialogue.

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