The introduction to this series is here.
The idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.
Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
Day Eight: 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. Robert McKee’s famous textbook, Story, argues something similar.
In bad dialogue, generally speaking, the characters have a topic of conversation and they both talk about it. Slowly, gradually, they explain more and more of that subject to each other.
In good dialogue, the characters arrive to the conversation with goals, interests, frustrations: they begin the scene 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.
Alternatively — they don’t realise that they have something inside that wants to come out, but, despite their intentions, everything they hear makes them return to that hidden something.
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. It was exhausting.”
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.”
This is a little slow. There’s something going on, but we have to wade through a lot of talk to get to it. I don’t feel like I know these characters very well. 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.
It probably seems to the writer that this is good prose. The exchange seems like most of the published fiction one reads. People are talking, after all, and there is a subtext to that talk, as well. It should work!
But my belief is that it actually feels dull and near-dead to most readers.
In contrast, look at this short run of dialogue 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.
And, to give another canonical example: 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 long afterwards, making him doubt his whole plan for the evening.
(I know that adverbs are supposed to be bad, but it’s clear, in the above passage, how Joyce’s use of adverbs and adverb-like adjectives (“in a friendly tone,” “gaily,” “with great bitterness”) help him pivot from one mood to another, showing the effect the conversation is having on the two characters. Whereas, in my example, I had to create lots of lines of dialogue to simulate the gradual change in the conversation’s tone.)
Another idea: my impulse, in my own fiction, is to remove from dialouge as much as possible of the explanation, deliberation, and exposition, and push all that stuff into narration. Don’t explain anything in dialogue. Let talk just be talk, unless you are really intending to compose a speech, a monologue that you would be happy having an actor read aloud. Then, sure, let the villain reveal her terrifying plan. But if it’s just normal people chatting, let the narrator fill in the gaps. Readers seem happy to read lots of exposition when it is delivered by the narrator, or through a character’s thoughts, but trying to use dialogue to give background often feels clunky.
You could have the wife, in the above stretch of dialogue, say,
“I only ask about Mylene,” she said, “because of what happened in the office party at Christmas when I caught the two of you sitting alone together in the mail room and I’ve been suspicious ever since”–
But probably it’s better to move that information into the character’s mind:
“Just you and Mylene, then, alone?” asked his wife.
He looked at her, knowing exactly what she believed about Mylene. But she didn’t understand that…
Here’s the exercise for today. Either you can take one of the exercises you’ve done earlier in the week, like the “three levels of narration” challenge, and imagine a brief passage of dialogue between the young protagonist and the shop keeper. Write only four sentences of actual talk (but, if you want, surround that talk with as much narrative summary and reflection as necessary), in which your protagonist inadvertently reveals something important about herself.
The goal is to show, even on the smallest, most insignificant level, how a misunderstanding or mishearing reveals something unexpected. The characters aren’t listening to each other because they have too much going on in their heads.
Or, alerternatively, you can take the conversation of that husband and wife, above, and do the same thing to it: insert breaks in communication to reveal what’s really going on.
I’m looking forward to reading your dialogues.