Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk.
Rant, whisper, inform.
Stutter, harangue, order.
Insult, complain, gossip.
Share transgressions with friends and make them your confessors. Share plans with colleagues and make them your partners. Share rumors with neighbors and make them your enemies. Talk all day and long into the night.
If I can talk I should easily be able to write dialogue as true as a razor is straight, right? Simply transfer all that talking to words on paper, just the way I hear it, the way I say it. “So we, um, just write what we talk about and, can you, um, pass me the chips, thanks, and it’s sorta like what I was saying, ya know?” Oof, a terrible take. That sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.
Take two. “I happened to have encountered both of Nancy’s college children while Sam and I were negotiating the purchase of a new automobile.” Whew, not much better. Other than the queen, who talks like that? Not her either.
My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like someone who can’t grab a mouthful of articulate thoughts out of a spoon or it sounds formal, as if pretentious phrasing had been a college class aced by my characters. No one understands anything said by Spoon Girl while College Pretender talks about everything without saying a word. The delete button was invented for prevention of dialogue meltdowns and failures.
As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop on people around me, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can export to my characters. The further I take my characters from me, the more honest they become. I listen and watch the way people move as they speak, sometimes concealing their angst while twisting key chains, or boredom by thrumming fingers. They slurp cokes or coffee, pace, text on their phone, grimace behind the hand held to their mouth. Physical interaction keeps reader and character grounded. Words convey much more than surface conversation when people interact. The plot progresses, the little white lies gather, and motive becomes apparent.
Read great literature to discover brilliant conversation. A character pulls the mask over his face or hides behind a big fib, like the little boy who doesn’t want to paint a fence. I was nine when I read Tom Sawyer. Though I missed many of the subtler implications of Twain’s novel in that first reading, I laughed aloud as Tom manipulated his friends to believe they wanted not only to do Tom’s work, but would gladly pay for the opportunity.
[Tom’s friend, Ben] “Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
[Tom] “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
“…Lemme just try. Only just a little — I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”
“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly…If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”
“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say — I’ll give you the core of my apple.”
“Well, here — No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard –”
“I’ll give you all of it!”
[Mark Twain, chapter 2 abridged, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer]
The dialogue is simply stated, but in a few lines, Twain turns a skeptical Ben into willing free labor, Aunt Polly’s fence gets whitewashed, and Tom rakes in a carnival’s loot.
Applying everything I know academically about dialogue demands a moon’s orbit of time, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck hauled to the scrap heap. In my second novel, two teenage girls park on a hill and wring their hearts out in a chapter driven by dialogue. The conversation revolves around sex, what one of the girls knows and how little the other understands about how things work and what boys expect. Each girl learns that words can only tell part of their stories, given that the meaning of words assumed to be mutually clear is stymied by naiveté or enriched by experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up sobbing. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.
Often it’s not what’s spoken but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires a writer to trust readers, that they’re smart and attentive enough to fill in the blanks. Tension builds when you know the explosion is imminent, but writing about fiery debris and sharp objects rocketing through the skies may deflate a pivotal event. Too many words when the painted picture will do. Some explosions are internal, the moment when one grasps defeat, failure, betrayal. It’s a small death, and better left to the reader’s imagination than a tortuous passage. Consider Cordelia who with silence tells her father, King Lear, of the eponymous play, what he wants to hear in speech: that she loves him more than words can usefully describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience intuits her affection but Lear hears only his own rage. Shakespeare was a master at dialogue. It’s hard to find a better mentor.
My most recent WIP takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers. A great deal of the story involves dialogue between the family looking for a haven for their ill mother and the staff of the facility. Language is an early enemy of Alzheimer’s victims, so while there is a cast of characters who live there, nearly everything they say is befuddled or nonsensical, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior – pointing, wandering, laughing. Readers may not know exactly what they’re thinking but can relate to their pain, joy, and confusion. No one has to say a word when emotions draw from one’s visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by scenes where the dialogue is muddled but the intentions transparent. That’s what I want them to feel: as overwhelmed as the victims of this illness.
I’m learning to heave my heart into my mouth.
Talk talk, just say something worth reading.
Conversation image courtesy: comicbookplus.com, public domain images