It’s very easy for the dialogue you write to come across as stilted, stiff, and un-natural. Were you to secretly record and transcribe actual dialogue among or between friends at the coffee shop, much of it most likely would make little sense on paper. Missing would be all the facial expressions and other cues that substitute for words and are the ingredients of a more intimate communication process.
Consequently, when you construct the dialogue between friends in a piece of fiction, you can’t make it really real but present something that the reader can follow with some ease and is willing to buy into. The mind tends to erase the “he saids” and the “she saids” of attribution, but might get tripped up if the flow of an interchange seems forced or unrealistic or if your effort falls on one side or the other of the balance between being too informal or too formal. Dialogue is sort of like the porridge in “The Three Bears”—it needs to be just right.
Conversation that is read requires sufficient connectedness to the characters and the action to be understood by the reader. By connectedness, I mean the back and forth can’t get disconnected from the characters and become confusing. Because the structure of dialogue essentially starts out as unreal because of the additions of attribution and description, it takes very little for it to miss its target to come across to the reader as a realistic and flowing interchange between or among characters. Your characters need to slip into a level dialogue that is a few shades shy of a transcription. The conversation must follow basic rules of written composition yet have a sense of the loosey-gooseyness of the real McCoy.
Words are words, but conversation includes so much more: tone, inflection, facial expressions, bodily reactions (e.g., a shrug), eye movements, and pauses to enhance clarity or to display contemplation. That’s why courtroom testimony is done in the Q and A style—to maintain control and insure that the focus is on the testimony. But it is conversation—the repartee of the players—that best opens an interaction more likely to flow into the truth. Courtroom questions usually focus on a single inquiry. The lawyer asks, listens, then follows up with an additional question or questions in an effort to assure that the jurors receive the desired facts. Unfortunately, the technique can result in the testimony slipping into a monotone that can put everybody to sleep. Conducting good examination and cross-examination is an art form and are arduous tasks for the lawyers and the jurors. It must present action even though the words that must do that are confined to counsel table and the witness box. Even a courtroom interchange that contains massive doses of emotionality shows up pretty bland on the printed page. Written conversation removes virtually all emotionality. There are no narrative descriptions.
It the plight of the trial lawyer to make his or her examination or cross-examination of a witness exciting enough to keep the jury attentive, capture the mood of a moment past or the one unfolding, yet be complete enough so the transcript preserves the heart of the content.
But the harder task is for the writer who must make the electric courtroom scene come to life from words. And that is why dialogue can be difficult to write. Words used to capture and preserve clarity can come at the expense of excitement, and perhaps more importantly, the sound of normalcy. A conversation involves a substantial percentage of non-verbal hints and cues and content—from eye movements to body language—that wrap the words and their tones, inflections, and intensity. How to give a reader a sense of all this information in an exchange of dialogue is the task of the novelist.
Writers employ various techniques to try and capture the sense of a real conversation. The late Robert Parker used rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue with minimum attribution, which you can literally see if you watch any of the installments on the Hallmark network. Read Parker’s books and watch the television productions and it becomes readily apparent that Parker’s wrote scripts rather than novels. The problem is that all of Parker’s characters speak in the same truncated manner, which results in stories unrealistically populated with characters who share the same speech pattern.
Mark Twain differentiated his characters and interjected the reality of conversations through the use of dialect, which can be a pain in the butt to read. Other writers opt for long discursive descriptions of the scene or explanations of a conversation. William Faulkner’s descriptive paragraphs trundle along for pages.
Raymond Chandler was a master of blending description and limited dialogue in a way that painted the scene yet kept the action flowing:
I took hold of her and she came into my arms without a word. I picked her up and carried her and somehow found the bedroom. I put her down on the bed. I peeled her skirt up until I could see the white thighs above her long beautiful nylon-clad legs. Suddenly she reached up and pulled my head down against her breast.
“Beast! Could we have a little less light?”
I went to the door and switched the light off in the room. There was still a glow from the hall. When I turned she was standing by the bed as naked as Aphrodite, fresh from the Aegean. She stood there proudly and without either shame or enticement.
“Damn it,” I said, “When I was young you could undress a girl slowly. Nowadays she’s in the bed while you’re struggling with your collar button.”
“Well, struggle with your goddamn collar button.”
She pulled the bedcovers back and lay on the bed shamelessly nude. She was just a beautiful naked woman completely unashamed of being what she was.
“Satisfied with my legs?” she asked.
I didn’t answer.
“Yesterday morning,” she said, half dreamily, “I said there was something about you I liked—you didn’t paw—and something I didn’t like. Know what it was?”
“That you didn’t make me do this then.”
“Your manner hardly encouraged it.”
“You’re supposed to be a detective. Please put out all the lights now.”
Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird on the other hand blended paragraphs of pure description into a weave of description and dialogue tinged with dialect to enhance her characterizations. Note, too, how she employs dialect to confirm the differences between blacks and whites:
The warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us as we entered the churchyard—Hearts of Love hairdressing mingled with asafetida, snuff, Hoyt’s Cologne, Brown’s Mule, peppermint, and lilac talcum.
When they saw Jem and me with Calpurnia, the men stepped back and took off their hats; the women crossed their arms at their waists, weekday gestures of respectful attention. They parted and made a small pathway to the church door for us. Calpurnia walked between Jem and me, responding to the greetings of her brightly clad neighbors.
“What you up to, Miss Cal?” said a voice behind us.
Calpurnia’s hands went to our shoulders and we stopped and looked around: standing in the path behind us was a tall Negro woman. Her weight was on one leg; she rested her left elbow in the curve of her hip, pointing at us with upturned palm. She was bullet-headed with strange almond-shaped eyes, straight nose, and an Indian-bow mouth. She seemed seven feet high.
I felt Calpurnia’s hand dig into my shoulder. “What you want, Lula?” she asked, in tones I never heard her use. She spoke quietly, contemptuously.
“I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.”
“They’s my comp’ny,” said Calpurnia. Again I thought her voice strange: she was talking like the rest of them.
“Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. “Don’t you fret,” Calpurnia whispered to me, but the roses on her hat trembled indignantly.
When Lulu came up the pathway toward us Calpurnia said, “Stop right there, nigger.”
Lulu stopped, but she said, “You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here—they got their own church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?”
Calpurnia said, “It’s the same God, ain’t it?”
In True Grit, Charles Portis combined pure description with runs of blended descriptive dialogue:
He stirred as I came through the curtain. His weight was such that the bunk bowed in the middle almost to the floor. It looked like he was in a hammock. He was fully clothed under the covers. The brindle cat Sterling Price was curled up on the foot of the bed. Rooster coughed and spit on the floor and rolled a cigarette and lit it and coughed some more. He asked me to bring him some coffee and I got a cup and took the eureka pot from the stove and did this. As he drank, little brown drops of coffee clung to his mustache like dew. Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone. He seemed in no way surprised to see me so I took the same line and stood with my back to the stove and ate my apple.
Portis then launches into dialogue that brings the scene to life but still expands the descriptive elements:
“It is not good for your back sleeping like that.”
“You are right about that too. A man my age ought to have a good bed if he has nothing else. How does the weather stand out there?”
“The wind is right sharp,” said I. “It is clouding up some in the east.”
“We are in for snow or I miss my guess. Did you see the moon last night?”
“I do not look for snow today.”
“Where have you been, baby sister? I looked for you to come back, then give up on you. I figured you went on home.”
“No, I have been at the Monarch boardinghouse right along. I have been down with something very nearly like the croup.”
“Have you now? The General and me will thank you not to pass it on.”
“I have about got it whipped. I thought you might inquire about me or look in on me while I was laid up.”
“What made you think that?”
“I had no reason except I did not know anybody else in town.”
“Maybe you thought I was preacher that goes around paying calls on all the sick people.”
“No, I did not think that.”
“Preachers don’t have nothing better to do. I had my work to see to. Your Government marshals don’t have time to be paying a lot of social calls. They are too busy trying to follow all the regulations laid down by Uncle Sam. That gentleman will have his fee sheets just and correct or he does not pay.”
The dialogue comes across as being almost overly formal, but in fact it captures the marshal’s effort to come across as being very formal and proper. He mostly applies proper English and speaks with little dialect. This exchange not only paints the scene and hints at the marshal’s real character—the spitting on the floor—but puts in context the two characters: the above-average and brash young Mattie Ross’ and the rough-around-the-edges Marshal Rooster Cogburn who she wants to hire to find and arrest the man who killed her father. They dance around issues and topics, picking them up, dropping them, and moving on. You can sense Rooster moving away from any topic that might draw a conflict of opinions. Aware of a potential fee, he strives to make a good impression. Mattie is a proper young girl, and makes the only impression she knows. It’s the marshal who is playing a role and the dialogue captures his efforts and the scene without being intrusive to the flow. Portis creates a reality and puts you smack dab in the middle of it. His narrative description disappears into the conversation. Portis paints the scene with a very fine brush lightly applied.
As an experiment, I once gave a literature class copies of the script for a radio play by Louise Fletcher entitled “Sorry, Wrong Number.” It’s about a sickly woman who overhears a telephone conversation, due to some electrical glitch, of two men discussing the planned murder of a woman. It becomes obvious, at least initially to the audience, that the woman is the intended victim. There are three characters and some sound effects, yet after listening to the performance, the students were able to draw diagrams of the bedroom layout and describe the characters.
There are no tricks. Readers have imaginations, and a writer needs to supply only enough dialogue and description to let the reader dip their own brushes into the scene and paint the details. You would think that the “Sorry, Wrong Number” experiment would have produced a very wide range of descriptions, but in fact the students’ descriptions of the room and furniture were surprisingly similar.
MAN: (OFF MIC) What’s that? (ON MIC) Just a minute,
Oh, our client tells me that at 11:15, a
train crosses the bridge. It makes a noise
in case a window is open and she should
AGNES: Hello. What number is this, please . . .
GEORGE: OK, I understand. That’s 11:15 the train, eh?
MAN: Yeah Do you remember everything else, George?
GEORGE: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll make it quick . . . as little blood as possible because our client does not wish to make her suffer . . .
MAN: That’s right . . . you’ll use a knife?
GEORGE: Yes, a knife . . . it will be ok. Then afterwards, I’ll remove the rings and the bracelets and the jewelry in the bureau drawer because our client wishes it to look like a simple robbery. Don’t worry, everything’s ok, I know . . .
SFX: BUZZING SOUND AS PHONE DISCONNECTS.
AGNES: (STAGE WHISPER) Oh! How awful!
SFX: PHONE DIALING
AGNES: How unspeakably awful . . . Operator!
OPERATOR: Your number, please . . .
AGNES: Operator! I’ve just been cut off . . .
OPERATOR: What number were you calling?
AGNES: Well, Operator, I was supposed to be calling Murray Hill 4-0098, but it wasn’t. Some wires must have got crossed. I was cut into a wrong number – and I – I’ve just heard the most dreadful thing – something about a – murder – and – and Operator, you’ll simply have to retrace that call at once . . . I . . .
OPERATOR: I beg your pardon? Uh, may I help you?
Of course Agnes’ distraught condition, coupled with the operator’s near autotomic responses assures that the tension will mount. But note that on paper, the words are virtually flat. Almost awkward. But in the hands of actress Agnes Moorehead, the first 1943 broadcast mesmerized radio audiences. CBS rebroadcasted it something like seven times and ultimately it was made into a movie in 1948. Were you to strip out the script formatting and turn it into pure dialogue, it probably would come across as even less realistic. The burden falls to the actors to wrap the script in effective diction, inflection, and rhythm.
Strip the script free of its descriptive direction, and the story likely would fail. Read the script like a paragraph from a book and it’s not exciting. But read it out loud, and dramatically—following the narrative directions—and the words paint the scene, especially if you interject the female character’s growing sense of fear into her diction and voice.
A radio script demands presentation by someone to interject the tension and stress of such a scene. In a narrative format it might come across more like this:
Agnes suddenly realized she had in some mysterious way cut into another conversation. She instinctively pulled the receiver away from her ear and shook it as if that would free up some blockage in a tube. When she placed it back against her ear, she could hear a slight static hiss and pressed the phone closer to ear.
“Just a minute, George,” said a man with slightly hoarse voice. It was apparent he was talking to someone.
“Oh yes,” continued the voice, “our client tells me that at 11:15, a train crosses the bridge nearby. Makes a noise in case the window is open and she should scream. No one would hear her.”
Agnes again pulled the phone from her ear and looked into the receiver, as if she would be able to see the man who was talking. She put the receiver against her other ear and demanded, “Hello! What number is this, please?”
There was no response. In the background the 10:30 cross-town express announced its mournful arrival into the heart of the city as it noisily crossed the elevated bridge.
The man asked, “Do you remember everything else, George?”
“Yeah, yeah,” came the voice. “I’ll make it quick . . . as little blood as possible because our client does not wish to make her suffer . . .”
“That’s right. You’ll use a knife?” said the man.
“Yes, a knife. After, I’ll remove her rings and bracelets and take the jewelry from the bureau to make it look like a home-invasion robbery gone bad.” George cleared his throat. “Not to worry, everything will go just fine.”
A loud buzz filled Agnes’ ear and as she pulled the receiver away she could hear the connection break and she was suddenly alone with a dial tone.
Rendered an invalid by a long ago bout with polio, she was unable to get out of bed and go to the living room to check the phone there. It was late and the housekeeper was gone. She felt alone and abandoned and unable to do anything that might help that poor woman whose murder . . . she looked at the clock. The woman had less than forty minutes to live. What could she do? What could she do? She picked up the receiver and frantically dialed.
“How unspeakably awful! . . . Operator!”
Finally a voice said, “Your number, please.”
“Operator! I’ve just been cut off.”
“What number were you calling?” the operator said in a disinterested and robotic voice.
“Well, Operator, I was suppose to be calling Murray Hill 4-0098, but it wasn’t. Some wires must have got crossed . . .”
At this point, Agnes was appalled but had not become frantic, which begins to happens farther into the tale when she starts to put two and two together and then hears a noise and realizes there is someone downstairs who could not be her husband because he was out of town on business. You can literally see the importance of the role of descriptive narrative.
How would you reconstruct it?
Review the narratives and you will likely be able to pick places where you could interject additional descriptive verbiage to further enhance a sense of rising suspense, but you can also see the need to be careful and not let the growing suspense become too overwrought.
The above examples are not intended to be definitive, but to show the ways that narrative description and dialogue can be blended so that neither commands the other but work well in a collaborative way to enhance the other. Some writers prefer to stop the dialogue and present narrative description. Jack London did that very effectively. William Faulkner’s descriptions went famously on for pages because the characters’ character lay at the heart of many of his stories.
Rules? A risky business, but, in writing dialogue:
1) Be on the look out for effective examples by other writers—read their work and analyze what they did; you might copy them down or key them into a page to get a feeling of how the words came together;
2) Story is king, but if it’s not supported by realistic dialogue and effective narration, it will fail;
3) Never, ever try to be a show off. The last place to hang bling is on the words of your story;
4) Balance. It takes surprisingly little to bring your characters to life descriptively, but they don’t start to breath until they start to talk;
5) If the descriptive narrative is not absolutely critical to the action and dialogue you probably don’t need it;
6) Never interrupt the flow of a story to interject description. Description is the salt and pepper, not the main course. It enhances the flavor of your story when blended into the mix;
7) Read what you write out loud. Your dialogue needs to flow and move the story forward; your narrative descriptions need to enhance the reader’s sense of place, the action, and the realness of the characters; and,
8) Dip your brush lightly into the jar of descriptive details and paint gently. You’re creating a portrait, not a billboard; and,
9) Like the cabbie said to the fare who asked if he knew the way to Carnegie Hall: “Practice, practice, practice!”