The Art of Dialogue

dialogue (Photo credit: paloetic)

When Voices Carry

By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

There are times – we’ve all gone through them – when we just don’t want to talk to someone.  Perhaps it’s that awkward moment when you run into your boss at the grocery store after work hours, your cart full of frozen pizzas and wine, their tiny basket filled with dried goods and a bottle of Pepto.  Or maybe you just made eye contact with that creepy stranger in front of you in line, and you just know at any moment he’s going to lean over the two people that separate you and say something incredibly crazy.  Or maybe you’re just in a bad mood, and you’d really rather make the trek to your mailbox and back without having to trade gossip with the neighbors.

We can – and do – avoid communicating, but our characters cannot.  The entire purpose of a narrative is to take your characters on a journey, and on that journey they will meet other characters, have conversations, and illuminate the plot and through their words.  In fact, a great dialogue set piece can absolutely transform a story – explaining your characters’ motivations and bringing them to life in a way that mere exposition and description cannot.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devotes a whole chapter to dialogue.  As she explains, dialogue is important because it changes the pace and rhythm of the story while also letting the reader feel as if he or she is eavesdropping – a little hit voyeurism that spices up the plot and engages your audience.  But dialogue can be tricky.

“Nothing can break the mood of a piece of writing like bad dialogue,” says Lamott, an assertion with which I can wholeheartedly agree.

I spent last week racing through three or four suspense novels.  I picked them up in the mystery section of my local used bookstore (shout out to the Book Den, one of California’s oldest used book stores!), and all I wanted was a potboiler plot, easily relatable characters, and a mystery I couldn’t untangle in the first few chapters.   Mystery novels are my new guilty pleasure – a little more literary than straight-up detective novels, but you still get that delicious thrill of piecing together clues and trying to decide if the stranger should be trusted and if the killer (or blackmailer, or con artist) will be revealed.

Most of the books delivered exactly what they promised, but one just didn’t quite gel.  The plotting was alright – an affair, a murder, a kidnapping – but the dialogue just could get off the landing strip.  The main narrator’s voice was fine – not particularly inspiring, but I got an idea of who she was and what concerned, frightened or otherwise motivated her.  The problem was the legion of secondary characters that arrived on the scene.  Police investigators and sergeants and suspects, they had important parts to play and not one distinctive voice among them.  I found myself backtracking to the beginning of chapter time again, trying to decipher who’s point of view I was reading.  The dialogue failed to separate and identify the supporting players, and ultimately that fuzzy dialogue muddled the storyline and lessened the impact of the final dénouement.

“In nonfiction, the hope is that the personal actually said the words that you have attributed to him or her,” says Lamott.  “In fiction though, anything goes.”

And because you can invent any speech, any declaration, any question or answer, even more discipline is required.

“You’re not reproducing actual speech,” Lamott reminds us, “you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a characters says into words.  You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.”

My friend Tracey and I used to play a little game when we were footloose single gals living the high life during our college years.  She was perennially “boyfriended,” and I was always the ambivalent singleton, never sure what I wanted more – attention from the opposite sex or just to be left alone.  Inevitably some roving bachelor on the make would interrupt our nights out, and after a while we engineered a bit of social misdirection we could use discourage come-ons and interruptions.

We called it “Joe and the House,” and it worked every time.  The rules were simple: say anything you like, but just make it very dramatic and make sure it involves the words “Joe” and “house.”

Below, a sample of our Joe and House game – you can see how it’s dialogue at it’s most basic.

“So…did you hear Joe went to the house yesterday?”

“What? He went to the house?  Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know…you know Joe.”

“But it’s that house.  I can’t believe Joe would go there!”

“But Joe always goes to the house, he can’t stop himself.”

“I know…. it’s like a compulsion for Joe – going to that house.”

“Well, I asked him, ‘Joe, why did you go to the house?’”

“And what did he say?”

“Just the same answer he always gives, ‘It’s the house. I have to go.’”

And on and on and on…. you get the idea.  We’d often ramp up the drama if we felt like a lurker was waiting for a pause to jump and offer to buy a drink.  A couple of well time gestures, and Joe and his house could rise to melodramatic levels.  A few whispers, and suddenly the tale of Joe and the house morphed into illicit gossip, told in the strictest confidence.  Sometimes we got so caught up in the saga of Joe and the house, we’d almost forget it was all a show.

The point of telling you all about our subterfuge (someday I’ll tell you my other nightclub party trick – it involves bounty hunters and a small sheep farm in the isolated Alaskan tundra), is to distill dialogue down to it’s basics: when your characters talk to each other they aren’t just connecting, they are dropping hints and well-placed clues – “this is what the story is about” or “this is what I’m concerned with.”  In the above example, both characters are worried about Joe – but why?  Why should they care if he goes to this house?  What is the deal with the house?  Why can’t he stop himself?

And you learn, through what they say and how they say it – the pauses, the exclamations – how they are both concerned and resigned.  This is just what Joe always does.  They cannot control his actions.   But why are they resigned?  Why do they have no control – or think they have no control – over Joe?

Just a short exchange, but so much mystery…

As I’ve said before – the best way to get a handle on dialogue is to eavesdrop.  You have one dominant voice that plays in your head, but you’ve got to listen to how other people speak if you want to develop an ear for character conversations.  In fact, when you’re out on your next writer’s pit stop at the local coffee shop, or you find yourself with a pen and paper handy while you’re in line or on the train or sitting in a restaurant waiting for your friends, see if you can’t discretely jot down what folks are saying around you.  The goal is not to pick up some salacious tidbit, you’re just trying to suss out how people use words and inflection to communicate in both verbal and non verbal ways.

Below a quick transcription of a conversation I overheard while in line at the grocery store – as you read, see how the three characters emerge, with a bit of back-story and motivation thrown in.

“So Santa Barbara doesn’t have a Whole Foods,” says the husband as the grocery store clerk rings up his food.

“There’s one just down the street,” she says distractedly, re-swiping a set of sponges that the scanner just can quite read.

“Oh really, that’s new. Last time I was here this was the only place you could organic products.”

“Opened up about a year or so ago.”

“I bet they’re big competitors.”

“Not really, we carry different items.  We target different customers.  Their location is pretty small. Some of their grocery stores are beautiful, but this one’s building used to be an electronics store.”

“There’s no Trader Joes nearby either, so that probably helps.”

“Oh, actually there’s one just down the street as well.”

“Right next to the Whole Foods?”

“No, in the opposite direction.”

“That’s pretty convenient, to have all three stores so close to each other.”

“Well, we’re all a bit different. Paper or plastic?”


Now you try!

All Content is the sole Property of Elizabeth Cutiright and The Daily Creative Writer, if you are reading this blog on another site, it has been reposted without the author’s permission and is in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

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