We hear language as fluid and vibrant: speech, singing, poetry, storytelling. We understand that the conventions that guide written language are not always applied in conversation. Similarly, dialogue should convey your characters' vibrance, but the conventions of conversation do not necessarily provide good dialogue. Dialogue is not speech. Dialogue is a verisimilitude of speech. Good dialogue can read like an actual conversation, but it is carefully crafted in its imitation. Dialogue represents speech by getting to the core, the necessity of what the characters are saying to each other; unlike actual speech, which meanders and eludes.
If you record a conversation between two people, even a compelling conversation, the transposition of that conversation would not necessarily make good dialogue. When we talk to each other, we pause, we mumble, we repeat ourselves. We use long "urns" and "uh-huhs," we use "way" as an adjective, we talk circles around minutiae. All of these habits, in pieces, show up in dialogue. But the pieces must be carefully chosen. Much of what we say is superfluous to what we're talking about.
Try eavesdropping again. If you can, record a conversation or two. Transpose the conversation verbatim. Now cull through it and eliminate any unnecessary phrases or words. Identify the necessity of the conversation. Write a dialogue in which you illuminate that necessity.
Notice what you have to change in order to make your transposed conversation into a readable dialogue.
There is a dramatic maxim that dialogue consists of two or more characters saying "No" to each other. While the word "No" might not actually appear in the dialogue, tension is created by the resistance with which each character speaks to the other. This is often considered the subtext of the dialogue. Subtext has always been an important tool for dramatists. Often, what is being said reveals less than what is not being said.
As a writer, you need to discover the resistance between your characters that the dialogue requires. The "No" your characters are speaking may not be an angry or intolerant "No." The conversation may appear, in fact, tranquil on the surface. Resistance can be subtle. The following exercise can help you discover the resistance between your characters, an important aspect of complicating your story, or introducing the conflict.
Choose two of your characters. Engage them in a dialogue in which each says "No" to the other. However, don't use the word "No."
Write a dialogue in which one character is trying to compel the other to do something he does not want to do.
While specificity often asks for a better verb than say, avoid infusing your dialogue with verbs like stammer, cry, or espouse. All are fine verbs but they will detract from the dialogue itself. Focus on what is being said, rather than how it is being said. If you have a character who stammers, let his speech suggest his hesitation. If your character is crying, let what she says convey her tears.
"Smuggling" describes the technique of inserting expositional information about your story into your characters' dialogue. For example, your character, Smedley, tells his girlfriend that he forgot his toothbrush: "My shaving kit is in the bathroom of my house on Lakewood Boulevard." If Smedley is close enough to his girlfriend that he needs his toothbrush, she probably knows where he lives. The information about his house on Lakewood, then, can only be intended for the reader. If Smedley's address is pertinent to the story, convey it in the narrative, not in the characters' dialogue.
Write a one-sided telephone conversation. Try to convey the essence of the conversation without smuggling. Specifically, don't repeat the unheard conversation in your character's speech.
Dialogue should reveal the particularities of your character. No other information is relevant. In response to a question about the lack of quotation marks in his dialogue, the writer William T. Vollman once said that he attempts to write characters whose speech is definitive enough to identify them individually. The reader would know that the character was speaking without being signaled.
Write a dialogue using only your characters' words. Use no additional description of the speakers. Do not use "he said" or "she said." To delineate speakers, you can begin a new paragraph after each comment.
Sometimes it is difficult to move from dialogue to scene. Often, this problem shows up as belabored or unnecessary description. Consider the following example:
"I don't believe in a heavenly father," Joyce yelled angrily and then slammed the door with a loud crack.
By omitting the description of how Joyce spoke, we can move immediately into the action.
"I don't believe in a heavenly father!" Joyce slammed the door.
The exclamation point alerts us that Joyce yelled. Even if we omit the exclamation point, her action implies the emotion behind her statement. We can imagine that her yell was angry; we can hear the door slam. The description of the loud crack takes us away from Joyce's action, which is where we want to be. Additionally, slamming the door without "then" suggests that her exclamation and her action were simultaneous, rather than linearly plotted.
1. Write a dialogue in which you use description of action, rather than speech. Like the previous exercise, do not use speech markers. Instead, let the character indicate the tone with his speech and action.
2. Now write a dialogue in which one or both of the characters' actions contradict what they are saying.
We have explored the idea that dialogue is not speech. You may have discovered that much of what we say does not make good dialogue if transposed word for word. But dialogue represents speech and must do so accurately. When we talk, we use contractions, slang, and other idiosyncratic language styles. Consider the differences in the following snippets of dialogue.
"Are you coming over to my house?" "I am not certain that I can come until later tonight." "I would like you to call me then." "I will call."
"Will you promise to call?" "I will not promise anything."
"Are you coming over?" "Maybe later." "Call me then" "I'll call." "Promise?" "No promises."
The first conversation reads more like a transcript from an instant messaging conversation than two people talking to each other. The formality of the prose is unusual, especially between two people who know each other well. The second dialogue uses fragments and contractions to more accurately imitate speech.
Go back to the dialogue you created from transposed eavesdropping. Read through it to find moments when you can use contractions or other devices. Rewrite the conversation.
Our speech is culturally, economically, and ethnically informed by our particular worlds. Good dialogue is attentive to these particularities. A schoolboy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, would not sound like a schoolboy from County Cork in Ireland. Neither boy, in all probability, would use the King's English. The boy from Louisiana might be Cajun, and speak English with liberal pepperings of French. Dialogue distinguishes a character's particularity.
Eavesdrop again. This time, listen to conversations around you to discover the particularités of speech in your community. Once you've identified some of those conventions, write a dialogue between two people who share your community's particular speech patterns. Then try writing another dialogue in which someone with very different speech patterns is talking to someone from your community.
In the following excerpt from the now familiar The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros offers an example of various dialogue techniques we have discussed. Notice the particularities of the characters' speech. Consider the effect of forgoing quotation marks. What do you think of Cisneros' minimally signaled dialogue?
The Eskimos got thirty different names for snow, I say. I read it in a book. I got a cousin, Rachel says, she got three different names. There ain't thirty different kinds of snow, Lucy says. There are two kinds. The clean kind and the dirty kind, clean and dirty. Only two.
There are a million zillion kinds, says Nenny. No two exactly alike. Only how do you remember which one is which?
She got three last names and, let me see, two first names. One in English and one Spanish
And clouds got at least ten different names, I say. Names for clouds? Nenny asks. Names just like you and me? That up there, that's cumulus, and everybody looks up. Cumulus are cute, Rachel says. She would say something like that. What's that one there? Nenny asks, pointing a finger.
That's cumulus too. They're all cumulus today. Cumulus, cumulus, cumulus. No, she says. That there is Nancy, otherwise known as Pig-eye. And over there her cousin Mildred, and little Joey, Marco, Nereida and Sue.
There are all different kinds of clouds. How many different kinds of clouds can you think of?
Well, there's these already that look like shaving cream...And what about the kind that looks like you combed its hair? Yes, those are clouds too. Phyllis, Ted, Alfredo and Julie...
There are clouds that look like big fields of sheep, Rachel says. Them are my favorite.
And don't forget nimbus the rain cloud, I add, that's something. Jose and Dagoberto, Alicia, Raul, Edna, Alma and Rickey There's that wide puffy cloud that looks like your face when you wake up after falling asleep with all your clothes on.
Reynaldo, Angelo, Albert, Armando, Mario... Not my face. Looks like your fat face. Rits, Margie, Ernie... Whose fat face?
Esperanza's fat face, that's who. Looks like Esperanza's ugly face when she comes to school in the morning. Anita, Stella, Dennis, and Lolo... Who you calling ugly, ugly? Richie, Yolanda, Hector, Stevie, Vincent... Not you. Your mama, that's who.
My mama? You better not be saying that, Lucy Guerrero. You better not be talking like that...else you can say goodbye to being my friend forever.
I'm saying your mama's ugly like...ummmm...like bare feet in September! That does it! Both of yous better get out of my yard before I call my brothers. Oh, we're only playing.
I can think of thirty Eskimo words for you, Rachel. Thirty words that say what you are.
Oh yeah, well I can think of some more.
Uh-oh, Nenny. Better get the broom. Too much trash in our yard today. Frankie, Licha, Maria, Pee Wee...
Nenny, you better tell your sister she is really crazy because Lucy and me are never coming back here again. Forever. Reggie, Elizabeth, Lisa, Louie...
You can do what you want to do, Nenny, but you better not talk to Lucy or Rachel if you want to be my sister.
You know what you are, Esperanza? You are like the Cream of Wheat cereal. You're like the lumps.
Yeah, and you're foot fleas, that's you.
Rosemary, Dalia, Lily...
Jean, Geranium and Joe...
Your ugly mama's toes.
Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza and Nenny.
—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
I titled this chapter after Raymond Carver's first collection of stories, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" I think that title exemplifies the idiosyncratic attention to language that made Carver a great story writer. The chapter closes with an excerpt from his story, "Where I'm Calling From" to illustrate a tightly crafted narrative dialogue.
Where I'm Calling From
"I've heard about you," I say. "J.P told me how you got acquainted. Something about a chimney, J.P said."
"Yes, a chimney," she says. "There's probably a lot else he did not tell you," she says. "I bet he did not tell you everything," she says, and laughs. Then—she cannot wait any longer—she slips her arm around J.P and kisses him on the cheek. They start to move to the door. "Nice meeting you," she says. "Hey, did he tell you he's the best sweep in the business?"
"Come on now, Roxy," J.P says. He has his hand on the doorknob.
"He told me he learned everything he knew from you," I say.
"Well, that much is sure true," she says. She laughs again. But it's like she's thinking about something else. J.P turns the doorknob. Roxy lays her hand over his. "Joe, can't we go into town for lunch? Can't I take you someplace?"
J.P clears his throat. He says, "It hasn't been a week yet." He takes his hand off the doorknob and brings his fingers to his chin. "I think they'd like it if I didn't leave the place for a little while yet. We can have some coffee here," he says.
"That's fine," she says. Her eyes work over to me again. "I'm glad Joe's made a friend. Nice to meet you," she says.
They start to go inside. I know it's a dumb thing to do, but I do it anyway. "Roxy," I say. And they stop in the doorway and look at me. "I need some luck," I say. "No kidding. I could do with a kiss myself."
J.P looks down. He's still holding the knob, even though the door is open. He turns the knob back and forth. But I keep looking at her. Roxy grins. "I'm not a sweep anymore," she says. "Not for years. Didn't Joe tell you that? But, sure, I'll kiss you, sure."
She moves over. She takes me by the shoulders—I'm a big man—and she plants this kiss on my lips. "How's that?" she says.
"Nothing to it," she says. She's still holding me by the shoulders. She's looking me right in the eyes. "Good luck," she says, and then she lets go of me.
"See you later, pal," J.P says. He opens the door all the way, and they go in.
—Raymond Carver, "Where I'm Calling From"
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