HE SAYS, SHE SAYS: Dialog in Fiction
In reading the work of Ian McEwan, specifically Atonement and Saturday, both powerful books, I was struck by his sparse use of dialog. You can go for pages upon pages without seeing any. Couldn’t they both have been even stronger, I asked myself, if we had heard and watched the characters speaking more often? It was as if the author had performed a difficult task, as writing always is, while often ignoring one of the primary tools of the trade. As for why he chose to work that way, I don’t know. But for myself, I make sure I have access to everything I need when I work. Here is an illustration. In a sudden panic, Bill strongly suggested that we leave. OK. Maybe he did, but the use of the adverb strongly does not give it the necessary impact. How about this: “Let’s get out of here!” Bill yelled, his face inches from mine. Now it’s more believable, since we have all three of the principal aspects of dialog: information, action, and immediacy.
There are many ways to convey information, but having it come directly from the mouth of one of our characters is one of the most effective ways, but that does not mean second hand. Rather than have Bill tell me about what Jane did this morning, it’s better if I can see her do it myself. The best content from Bill is what he himself feels, needs, and believes. The information has to be first hand. Yet, there is dialog without information. In the study of rhetoric, this is called phatic utterance. Here’s an example where two people encounter each other walking down the street: “Hey! How ya doin’?” “Great, how about you?” “Can’t complain. You?” “Not too bad.” Here, instead of an exchange of information, we have none. This is only behavior. While this exchange may be preliminary to a real conversation, nothing has yet been communicated. So when we are writing dialog, it is best to dispense with as much of this preliminary, light weight material as possible and get real. Every line of dialog has the same larger purpose as any other line in our story––it is to advance the plot. If it does not do that, we do not need it. The reader is likely to be tapping his fingers on the desktop wondering when we’re going to move on. He may well think of this kind of material as filler, which it might be. What we get from good dialog is immediacy. It brings the focus right up to the face of the speakers. The language we encounter there is not only verbal, but includes all the nuance of body language, which brings more life and more specificity to our words. The request, “Help me!” means one thing when your mother is unloading groceries from the rear of her car, but quite another if she is lying pinned beneath the rear of that car.
Sol Stein, whose indispensible book, Stein on Writing, (put out by St. Martin’s Griffin and available on Amazon) is still as relevant today as when it came out twenty years ago. Stein tells the story of an exercise given to a pair of young playwrights where they were to improvise a scene on stage. Each was briefed separately on the situation at hand. The man was told he was to play a high school principal who had requested that a parent come in for a meeting so he could tell her that her son was being expelled for poor performance and behavioral issues. The woman was told her son was about to receive an award for his scholastic achievements, and she was going to the principal’s office to receive the news. Both assumed they’d been given compatible information. Was this a dirty trick? Perhaps, but life isn’t always fair, and it’s those times when it’s not that are often the most dramatic. Naturally the first reaction on both sides was to be startled and confused. There was the instant realization that they were not on the same page, and this led to the conflict, as each tried to impose his understanding of what the scene should be about. In much of American entertainment, drama is equated with violence, but the subtler forms of conflict are far more capable of carrying nuance, and therefore much more interesting and complex.
What can we learn from this? To me it suggests that while we do not shy away from dialog, we ought to look for opportunities to use it where the speakers do not already know what the other person is going to say, and better, where their expectations are inaccurate. Where there is a real exchange of information and emotion, and not just an affirmation of an existing shared view or pre-existing agreement. If we find ourselves writing a line of dialog that says, “As you know, Bill and Sally got married yesterday,” then it is only designed to bring the reader that information, so it has no business as dialog between two characters that already know it. We need to find another way. If there is no possibility of generating drama in an exchange of dialog, it might be better to convey the information in straight narration.
Dialog is but one link in a chain of writing skills that together, bring a book alive for the reader. A Writer’s Notebook is part of my journey down that rich and rewarding path. http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/writernotebook.html
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