May 19


Seven days to get writing again: day six

The introduction to this series is here. But the idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for seven days. Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at my name at gmail).

(Sorry for the delay, yesterday. Life often intervenes in writing, but on Saturday it intervened more dramatically than usual.)

Day six: dialogue!

A theory about writing dialogue: the two characters should sound as if they are barely listening to each other.

I think I picked this up from reading Harold Bloom's essays on Shakespeare.

In good dialogue, the characters arrive in the conversation already ready to speak, already on the edge of bursting out with whatever they need to announce. They want to say something; they're just waiting for the prompt.

Good dialogue, then is about managing the gap between how a character might be expected to respond and how he or she actually responds. Too small a gap–dull. Too large a gap–incomprehensible.

Here's an example of bad dialogue, according to this rule:

Husband: “Work was hell. I was lucky to get out before nine.”

Wife: “Really, darling? I'm so sorry.”

Husband: “Thank you. But yes, it was exhausting. Old McClusky had us working in separate teams all afternoon, checking every client's assets.”

Wife: “I hope your team was one of the better ones.”

Husband: “It was. I was working with Bill and Mylene, but then Bill went home.”

Wife: “So it was just you and Mylene, then, side by side? That must have been fun.”

Husband: “She's good at her job, darling.”

Wife: “What was that tart wearing? Did you get a good look at any of her assets?”

Husband: “I didn't notice what she was wearing. I just wanted to get the job done and get home. To you.”

This is a little slow. There's something going on, but we have to wade through a lot of talk to get to it. Clearly the “wife” has met or heard about this “Mylene” before, but it's not as though this exchange is really illuminating that history, at least not very quickly.

In contrast, here is a brief exchange from James Joyce's “The Dead,”

—Tell me, Lily, he said in a friendly tone, do you still go to school?

—O no, sir, she answered. I'm done schooling this year and more.

—O, then, said Gabriel gaily, I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:

—The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.

Gabriel thought he understood Lily and the conversation they were having. Suddenly, however, he touches on something important to her, and she erupts. The thing she has long wanted to say comes out. This small social disaster reverberates in Gabriel's mind, making him doubt his whole plan for the evening.

This is from Bernard Malamud's “The Magic Barrel”:

Salzman adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, gently cleared his throat and read in an eager voice the contents of the top card:

“Sophie P. Twenty-four years. Widow one year. No children. Educated high school and two years college. Father promises eight thousand dollars. Has wonderful wholesale business. Also real estate. On the mother's side comes teachers, also one actor. Well known on Second Avenue.”

Leo gazed up in surprise. “Did you say a widow?”

Leo's overreaction to that one element of Salzman's list tells us something about him. It also requires Salzman to adjust his pitch, to adapt to what he is learning about Leo Finkle: the dialogue that follows moves along briskly.

Here's the exercise for today. Either you can take one of the exercises you've done earlier in the week, like on day two, and imagine a brief passage of dialogue, with only four sentences of actual talk (but as much narrative summary and reflection as you need), in which your protagonist reveals something important about herself.

Or you can take the conversation of that husband and wife, above, and do the same thing to it.

Here's an example from me. On day two of this series, I imagined the character Eric Loft, driving to North Carolina to buy back his family's lost farm. Here's a possible scene from that story:

Eric came into the darkened kitchen where the young woman was sewing.

Without looking up, she said, “You're Fredrick's son. It's all over your face.”

“Did you know him? Was he popular?”

“He stole our lands. Took everything from us. Have you come to steal the rest?”

Her words hit Eric like a slap. He wanted to deny them, to say how much he hated his father, how he was glad the old man was dead.

Instead, his voice cracking and infirm, he said, uselessly, “We're having a small party tonight, in the farmhouse–I've ordered in some Thai food–would you, um, like to come?”

Give it a try! As you can see from my examples, lyricism may not be possible, but the point is simply to practise, to try out new ways of writing prose.

I'm looking forward to reading your dialogues.




Bernard Malamud, Harold Bloom, James Joyce, writing dialogue

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  • Hi Daniel,

    Hope you are keeping well. Please don’t stop with seven exercises. Keep sending more. This gives me a chance to write. Consider my request and please read my sixth exercise.



    * * *As soon as Manu entered the office his colleague asked, “Sir, didn’t you see the front page yesterday? There was a story about killings of civilians. You didn’t take it for online edition.” * * * *”Oh, I didn’t see it,” Manu replied, tired of his collegue’s small mindedness and subtle bullying.* * * *”But you can upload the story today,” said the colleague with an air of superiority.* * * *Feeling awful that a stupid guy was pointing out his omission, Manu said “Ok”. * * * * * * *

    • I will, I think, plan to do a twice weekly series, on Mondays and Fridays… I’m still thinking it through.

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