"Oh, and do you remember"—she added—"a conversation we had once about driving a car?"
"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride."
"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor."
—Jordan and Nick (The Great Gatsby)
Though the game was childish, their mother preserved the tradition of rewarding the first to see the Towers with a candybar or piece of fruit. She insisted now that Magda play the game, the prize, she said, was "something hard to get nowadays." Ambrose decided not to join in; he sat far back in his seat. Magda, like Peter, leaned forward. Two sets of straps were discernible through the shoulders of her sun dress; the inside right one, a brassiereap was fastened or shortened with a small safety pin. The right armpit of her dress, presumably the left as well, was damp with perspiration.
—John Barth ("Lost in the Funhouse")
My father is on a black horse, my mother on a white one, and they seem to be making an eternal circuit for the single purpose of snatching the nickel rings My mother has acquired only two rings, my father, however, ten of them, although it was my mother who really wanted them. As their dinner goes on, my father tells of his plans for the future and my mother shows with expressive face how interested she is, and how impressed. My father becomes exultant, lifted up by the waltz that is being played and his own future begins to intoxicate him. [T]hen as the waltz reaches the moment when the dancers all swing madly, then, then with awful daring, then he asks my mother to marry him, although awkwardly enough and puzzled as to how he had arrived at the question, and she, to make the whole business worse, begins to cry, and my father looks nervously about not knowing at all what to do now, and my mother says: "It's all I've wanted from the first moment I saw you," sobbing, I stood up in the theater and shouted: "Don't do it! It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous."
—Delmore Schwartz ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities")
Dialogue: The Spine of Fiction
Many years ago, while working with some fifth graders, I referred to dialogue as the spine of fiction. "What's a 'spine'?" called out one boy. His friend said, "It's like the back part of the skeleton that holds you up." "No," said a third kid, "The spine is where the nerves go. It carries the messages."
Exactly. All of the above and more. Dialogue does many things at once. Characters show what's on their minds and what they're made of. They may lay out some background facts the reader needs. Above all, dialogue is where the story's essential conflict is dramatically revealed. "Spine" may not be your image for dialogue in fiction—one of my writer colleagues calls it the "spark" and another says it is the "adhesive"—but when you think back over a novel you've read, you most often remember the scenes in which something important happened, and usually it happened as the people were talking.
Of course some fiction, like parables and tales, depends on narrative rather than scene and dialogue. Some experimental fiction has as its subject the play of language rather than character and event. These remarks about dialogue best fit fiction that uses the conventions rather than overturning them. In such convention-using fiction, the real subject is the people and what happens to them, and thus it shouldn't be surprising that the emotional content is demonstrated most vividly when people interact with one another. Indeed, in my writing (although hardly in everyone's), dialogue is often the climax of a chapter or story. Two of my four published novels for adults actually end with a line of dialogue, and the other two have dialogue within a few lines of the end. Do you remember De Maupassant's story, "The Necklace?" Even though much of the story is narrative, it ends with a dialogue between two women, and the very final words are an unembellished spoken revelation by one woman to the other. I'm not suggesting this as a prescription for fiction, only to emphasis the importance of dialogue and how it carries the drama and sometimes emblemizes what came before.
Dialogue is also closer to the thing it imitates (conversation) than any other element of fiction. In real life, a person's appearance is an impression you get in a single glance, and you observe the details piecemeal over time. Description of a sword thrust is much slower than an actual sword thrust and has to be described by analysis or metaphor. But conversations, in real life as in fiction, are actually made of words, and words in print can be read aloud in something close to real time. Description can be extremely well written and important to the story, but it is not very much like the thing it describes, whereas dialogue comes as close as fiction can to an identity between artifact and what it represents; its pacing can thus create a special bond to the real world.
I had a student once who wrote almost no dialogue but lots of long, beautiful passages of description. Her work was the kind that caused people to say, "How well written!" It was highly finished—and extremely static. It lacked the life that fiction is capable of. To me, fiction is not an object to walk around and contemplate. Rather, fiction moves, and moves the reader with it. At its best, fiction gives a reader the experience of plunging into another world and riding as in a flume to another place. Since dialogue is where you often find the drama, it is thus the part of prose that propels the reader through the story. My student decided to take a play writing course in order to improve her dialogue writing, and when she returned to her novel, it took off with animation and energy. She had learned to see her conflict dramatized and to hear her characters' voices.
TRY THIS: If you're having trouble with dialogue in a story, do this exercise from theater writing classes: Write a dialogue in which your characters have a conversation about one subject, but are really talking about something else. In other words, the scene has a subtext. They are talking about which restaurant to go to, but, the subtext is, for example, how their relationship is falling apart.
TRY THIS: Two people are discussing some inanimate object or abstract idea. What do they say? And, again, what are they really saying?
In fiction dialogue, of course, you have to find substitutes for all the tones and business that living actors infuse into their speeches. Take a look at this little scene from Tillie Olsen's novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties:
As short as it is, the passage has a setting and describes how things are said ("heavily"). It includes silence as part of the conversation, and even has a touch of dialect, but not so much that it seems to mock the speaker. It ends with a short internal monologue that functions almost as another voice participating in the scene. I admire how compactly the scene shows a family under economic stress. In real life, the scene would have probably lasted longer, but in fiction, the compression intensifies the mood.
TRY THIS: Try extending the scene from Yonnondio. Write what came before or what came after.
TRY THIS: The scene also represents a standard situation: there is a conflict in which one person wants one thing (his dinner) and one wants another (to be left alone). Write such a scene.
TRY THIS: The Tillie Olsen scene ends with an internal monologue, which is another way to explore character and to capture the sound of people's voices. Write monologues for each of your main characters. Is there a place in dialogue where the characters can speak the monologues aloud? If the speech is too long, shorten it.
The late Anthony Burgess once told a writing seminar that he always began a new novel by typing about sixty pages of dialogue—no narration, no description, just voices talking. Then, he said, he knew what the novel was about and could write it. I think that is an extraordinary testimony to the value of hearing voices.
TRY THIS: Close your eyes and imagine you are overhearing a conversation between two people in your story or novel. Get them to talk about anything, but make them talk for a long period of time. You might even set a timer and try to hear them for at least five minutes. Then write what you remember.
One reason for drafting lots of dialogue is to capture the naturalistic sound and flow of it, but probably an even better reason is to come up with insights into your characters and new plot ideas. If you can keep the people talking, perhaps longer than feels comfortable, your characters may say something unexpected.
TRY THIS: Take a scene with dialogue you have already written, or start a new one, and keep the people talking for at least half a page after you think you are finished.
This is the kind of writing exercise I would once have spurned as going against the grain of artistic expression, but I find that it can force the characters to expose things they had been hiding—from me the writer as well as from each other. I don't mean to suggest something mysterious or magical; this is simply a technique for engaging parts of your memory and imagination that you may not have been using. The hope, of course, is that you'll come up with something new—a changed direction, the solution to a problem.
Expanding dialogue cannot be divorced from tightening and revising and shortening dialogue. Once you've drafted and pushed farther, you need to go back and cut out everything that doesn't do more than two things at once. That is to say, if Frank's speech does nothing more than convey that he has three children, either cut it, or combine it with another speech that reveals not only the number of children Frank has but that Frank hasn't seen any of them in five years. In real life, we hem and haw, we repeat, we depend on clichés and catch phrases. A hint of such things gives a sense of the speaker's character, but to transcribe the whole boring mess is, of course, to write a boring mess. The artistry of dialogue is in the compression, the push to get more into it than might be revealed in real life, and to do this smoothly, leaving it tight and packed with meaning, yet sustaining the illusion of natural talk.
TRY THIS: Are you able arbitrarily to cut one quarter of the speeches in a passage of dialogue you wrote? How about one third of the speeches? What happens to what you wrote?
TRY THIS: Instead of cutting, combine the speeches into half as many.
Expand your dialogue, tighten your dialogue; strive for an illusion of natural conversation, but make sure it is dense with meaning. These are not contradictions, but rather the integration of apparently dissimilar things that is the essence of art. But more important than technique or editing or even the artistic process is to write dialogue that entertains and engages you, the writer. Listen to the voices of the characters acting out their conflicts, then write the part that pulls you in. If you come back to your work after laying it aside for a while and find yourself reading rapidly, riding the passage as if on a raft in a fast stream, then there is a good chance that a reader will have a similar experience and willingly, enthusiastically, ride with you. The act of writing and the act of reading at their best both have the exhilaration and satisfaction of a worthwhile journey.