Graham (G1): Good morning Graham, how are you?
Graham (G2): Meh, pretty tired. The cat decided to wake us up at three in the morning again.
G1: That sucks. Frickin’ felines.
G1: So I saw on Twitter last night you said you thought you might write a post about dialogue today.
G2: You must have been up late.
G1: I was.
G2: Couldn’t sleep either?
G1: What “either”? You and I are the same person.
G2: True enough.
G1: I’m just choosing not to be snippy and cranky about it this morning.
G2: “Snippy” and “cranky”? What are you, channeling our grandmother now?
G1: Do you think we could get on with this, Mr. Snarkypants?
G2: Fine. Where do you want to start?
G1: Well, it occurred to me that there is a lot of contradictory advice about dialogue floating around out there.
G2: I’ve noticed that too. Some people think too much dialogue is a bad thing.
G1: I don’t get that. I mean, obviously a novel is not a play and you need to create a balance of description and dialogue, but come on. I think that’s an excuse invented by people who can’t write dialogue well.
G2: And you accused me of being snarky.
G1: Well, if I didn’t think I was a good writer of dialogue, I would pare it back as much as I could. But do you remember when we were watching There Will Be Blood, how pretentious it seemed that there was no dialogue at all in the first half hour? Characters were going out of their way to not talk. It was forced and artificial. Real people are insatiable chatterboxes.
G2: Our son would certainly agree with you there.
G1: He’s kind of the singular example.
G2: Yeah. But you wouldn’t write a character like him, would you?
G1: No. Because a lot of what he says is just random stuff that pops into his head – half-remembered lines from TV shows, updates on the video game he’s playing, stuff he did at school that day. It doesn’t have a lot of coherence to it, or readability if you were to type it out word for word.
G2: Naturally. He’s twelve, and he’s a real person, not a character in a novel. We’re not expecting erudition and fully formed sentences with multiple clauses.
G1: No, no one would believe that, even in a novel. Unless you were portraying him as the most preternatural, linguistically-gifted twelve-year-old in the history of the human race.
G2: We love him very much, but no, that’s not who he is.
G1: Nope. So there’s a balance between the accurate portrayal of a twelve-year-old’s mentality and the need to establish a readable character, one who serves the narrative. People just don’t talk how writers need to write them. We yammer on about everything but what’s actually on our mind – we tell silly jokes, we blather about the weather. In a story you have to get to the point.
G2: That’s what you mean about serving the narrative.
G1: Yeah. Every conversation needs to push some aspect of the story, if only the slightest of nudges. The relationships between the characters need to develop, or the characters have to get closer to their goal. If your guys are going to stop for a five minute exegesis on hamburgers, there had better be some payoff to it.
G2: Hamburgers… you’re thinking Pulp Fiction again.
G1: You know me so well. That’s a really good example. That whole conversation between Jules and Vincent has nothing to do with the plot, but it helps establish their relationship, and shows us that these guys are interesting, endearing people we’re going to dig spending time with. Even though they are on their way to commit a series of murders. Would we have liked them if they’d devoted the conversation to the methodology of how they were going to kill the guys once they got to the apartment, or worse, said nothing at all?
G2: That would have been the insufferable arthouse version.
G1: So, I come back to this idea of balance. You can go too far the other way, where characters become plot explainers. I’ve seen this in fantasy a lot, where two people who have no real reason to talk to each other do an information dump about where they are in their quest, what happened over the last couple of days, and what has to happen next. There’s no nuance to the conversation – the characters just agree with each other for pages on end as they lay out the story so far. It’s the “As you know, Bob” problem. Or Basil Exposition, depending on your preferences. If the sole purpose of your dialogue is to tell your audience things they could learn another way, You’re Doing It Wrong.
G2: My eyelids sag at the mere thought. Of course, you and I are basically just agreeing with each other here. What did you mean by nuance?
G1: Characters should never talk about what they’re actually talking about. Concepts and pellets of information should be implied, not blatant.
G2: Oh, so we would talk about mochacinos in the guise of discussing dialogue?
G1: I like to approach conversations from oblique angles. Like yeah, maybe I would compose a scene of two writers (or two halves of the same mind, as it were) discussing dialogue and set it in line at a Starbucks while they wait for their lattés.
G2: Yeah, because you’d never find a writer at a Starbucks. Real original.
G1: You get my point, though?
G2: Not really. Please explain it to me with statistics and visual aids.
G1: You cribbed that line. You really need to get more sleep.
G2: I really need a lot of things and sleep gets in the way of them.
G1: Suit yourself. Picture it this way. When you’re building dialogue, you have a couple of elements to consider. You have the setting. You have the goal – the piece of information that you need to convey. Maybe it’s a simple fact, maybe it’s a clue to the mystery, maybe it’s the next step in a relationship. That’s where you’re heading, but you don’t start with it. You start in the wilderness and build towards it. Imagine a scene of a couple eating in a restaurant. The husband has to tell the wife that he’s lost his job, but he doesn’t know how to break the news. His first line, then, is not going to be “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I lost my job.” Is it?
G2: I guess it could be, but that seems a waste of a lot of potential dramatic tension.
G1: Exactly. Instead, you might start with them talking about the food they’re eating, other restaurants they’ve been in, you know, casual, everyday, innocent stuff. They might recall fond memories of when they were first dating. The husband will realize that losing his job means they won’t be able to have nights like this anymore. That will start to creep into what he’s saying to his wife. She’ll notice something’s wrong and she’ll ask him about it. He’ll deny it. She’ll ask again. He’ll deny it again, until he breaks down and confesses – or maybe doesn’t at all. You see how 95% of the conversation won’t be about the main piece of information that comes at the very end, right? Instead, you find your way in from the edges. Organically. The characters will lead you there on their own.
G2: Like the scene in our novel where the two leads talk about their respective parents. It begins with the heroine humming a stupid old folk song, and the guy noting that he recognizes it.
G1: Or the scene later on where a conversation about the role of women in the world begins with a chat about sandwiches.
G2: Pick the oddest thing and work your way back from it.
G1: You are learning, young padawan. The other thing to keep in mind too is that unless you’re writing a 1920’s silent movie, characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. Nor do most people. Subtlety and understatement are the way to go. A solemn declaration of undying love shouldn’t sound like it was scripted for daytime TV. In fact, avoid solemn declarations of undying love altogether.
G2: Something just occurred to me. We’re unpublished – where do we get off flinging rules around like so much confetti?
G1: There are no rules, only our interpretation of our own truth. There is every possibility that this exercise has been one in utter nonsense. We can only pass along what works for us in the hope that someone else might find it useful. And this is a rich topic that could go on for thousands upon thousands of words, but eventually, folks will want to tell us to shut up.
G2: Are there some resources we could point people towards?
G1: I think you just have to read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies written by great writers, listen to a lot of different kinds of people talking and process it all in the mind’s blender. And then try and fail a few times on your own before you figure it out.
G2: You were going to mention Aaron Sorkin, weren’t you.
G1: We both know he’s a big influence on us, it goes without saying. Look at him, look at people like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, and David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, to name but a very few. Listen to their rhythms, listen to how someone like Mamet deconstructs patterns of speech to convey character. Glengarry Glen Ross is a terrific example of this. The scene between Moss and Aaronow “talking about” versus “speaking about” is fantastic.
G2: You haven’t mentioned any actual novelists.
G1: Well, funny you should bring that up, because we’re reading a book right now, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which has an interesting approach to dialogue. It’s a western, set in 1851 California, but everyone speaks in very elegant, grammatically precise phrases that are probably not an accurate reflection of how people in 1851 California really spoke. Not the artistic choice I was expecting, but refreshing after plodding through Ian Fleming’s clumsy attempts at American slang which felt as artificial as nobody talking in the first act of There Will Be Blood did.
G2: Way to bring it full circle, dude.
G1: I know what you like. Anyway, how to portray dialect, how to vary word choices to denote different speakers, the value of repetition, talking it out to make sure it sounds right – like I said, a rich palette and worth discussing further at a later time.
G2: If you can persuade me to do this again. I feel like I didn’t get to say very much. You were doing all the talking.
G1: You’re tired. The cat, remember? Just looking out for you.
G2: Oh, yeah. Thanks. Cheers, mate.
G1: You too.