Tuesday, November 15, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a fiction writer learn to write good dialogue?"
This could have been an easy question for me to stumble on. I started thinking about individual lines of dialogue---or speech between characters--as an isolated phenomenon, and what I liked about them. One can extract dialogue from a story and discuss in a general way its virtues. But we should remember that dialogue occurs in a context, in other words, within a specific scene. And every dramatic scene has a structure. If we have two characters, say, each enters a scene motivated by a desire or need (or a conflict) that has brought him or her there. So they have (1) An Entrance. They seldom jump right into talking about their individual motivation for being there; instead they may engage in very natural and easy small talk or banter, as we find Richard Wright's characters doing at the opening of a scene in his novel Lawd Today:
         "What you know, Skinner?"
         "Don't know. What you know?"
         "Don't know. How's (another character) doing?"
Or in another exchange from the same novel:
         "What you saying, Jake?"
         "Ain't saying."
So for a few moments (or beats) in the scene we have what is called (2) Rhythm, the natural flow of speech between two people. At some point this will lead to (3) The Hit, or that heightened moment in their exchange where the issue (or conflict)that has brought them together is finally revealed. (This can be a true revelation, as in the pivotal "slapping" scene in the film "Chinatown" where the character Evelyn Mulwray reveals to detective "Jake" Gittes that she had an incestuous relationship with her father when she was 15-years-old.) Finally, after the Hit, the characters will (4) Exit the scene. A couple of things should be noted now. First, the emotional encounter experienced by the characters in a single dramatic scene will cause them to register some degree of change, psychologically, i.e., they will not exit that scene as clean as they went into it. Ideally, the scene (with its dialogue), will advance the story, moving its plot forward. So, to repeat: the structure of a dramatic scene (and usually comic ones, too) in which dialogue appears, and which determines what dialogue will be there, involves an entrance, rhythm, the hit, and an exit (from the stage or the scene).
Focusing more closely now on individual speeches, there are a few obvious points to make. Characters usually speak naturally or colloquially in short, crisp sentences. (But long speeches are, of course, sometimes required. If you want to learn how to make a character give a long speech or monologue without it being boring, do Exercise 7 in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction for practice; and also try your hand at Exercise 8, where you're asked to "Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn't worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom.") Ideally, those sentences should reveal character through the words the speaker uses and the specific cadence of his or her use of language. Each character's speech should be so specific to him or her that we can dispense with the label "he said." But if you must attribute a line of speech to a character, then the standard and simple "he said" will get you in less trouble than a risible choice like, "he ejaculated." (Please, don't ever write that one.) Now, take a look at this exchange from Wright's American Hunger:
        "Can't you read really?" I asked.
        "Naw," she giggled. "you know I can't read."
        "You can read some," I said." (Italics mine)
For me, the "some" in that sentence delivers a bit of the texture of black speech, and is more effective than, say, if the character had said "a little." Good dialogue is the product of a writer having a good ear, of listening carefully to how others speak, the words they choose, the stresses they place on certain syllables in those words. For example, in Dreamer I attempted to provide scansion for a line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon "A Knock at Midnight" in a scene where Chaym Smith, King's double, is trying to learn how imitate the good doctor's individual speech patterns and where he places stress on words (see page 107). 
 But an even more vivid and wonderfully funny example of the music of rich, ethnic speech than the three lines from Wright above can be found in the recently published novel, Ed King by David Guterson. In this very well-crafted work of fiction, the protagonist Ed King is the adopted son of Daniel and Alice King, a Jewish couple, who raise him with their biological son, Simon. During one of Daniel's phone conversations (the subject is whether to let Ed know he's adopted), we have a textbook-perfect example of textured speech so convincing we almost feel we are hearing it close range right at our ear and not reading it on the page:
         "Maybe one day they ask," said Pop. " 'How come he's tall, I'm not tall, he's got his nose, I got my nose, his hair, the other hair'---what you gonna say to your boychiks then? Huh, Dr. Dan? I'm waiting for you! This one, he's hitting home runs from the left side of the plate; the other, he's making Einstein in science class; one allergic maybe to nothing, one don't leave home without having asthma; one is this, one that, one up, one down, one yes, one no---so what do you say, Mr. Know-It-All?"
        "We stick with the mystery of genetics," answered Dan. "It couldn't be simpler, Pop."
        "Simple?" Pop said. "How is it simple? One day, he's gonna find out."
       "We stick with the mystery of genetics," Dan repeated. "If no one slips up or spills the beans, he isn't adopted. Let's all remember that."
       Pop sneezed into the phone. "Excuse me," he said. "It's lying, this business. The tooth fairy's lying, the golem is lying, Santa Claus lying, all of it lying, but this, Mr. Eddie, not adopted, that's lying, that's Number Nine of the Ten Commandments lying. Listen, Daniel, I'm telling you from my heart, you want more tsuris than you already got? Go ahead---tell this lie!"
Because we're talking about dialogue and not monologue, I find my writer's notebooks of the last 40 years filled with numerous examples of witty and crisp exchanges or repartee between two characters. Perhaps this is just my personal taste, but I suspect audiences for any story (in a novel, short story, in film or on stage) enjoy funny dialogue between characters, as in this back-and-forth between two characters in philosopher George Santayana's novel The Last Puritan:
          "Are you a Catholic?"
          "No---I've lost my faith."
          "Then, a Protestant?"
          "Sir---I've lost my faith, not my reason."
         And Charles Dickens is nothing if not a master of humorous dialogue. Here's an exchange from Great Expectations:
         "What's the name of them things with humps?"
         Joe nodded. "Mrs. Camels, it was."
         I supposed he meant Mrs. Camilla.
Being Buddhist, I must confess to having a great affection for those dialogue exchanges that not only make us smile but also slap us upside our heads with a spiritual lesson. Consider this famous Q&A reprinted in John C.H. Wu's The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T'ang Dynasty:
        "Do you perceive the fragrance of the cinnamon?
        "Yes, I do," replied Shan-ku.
        Huang-lu said, "You see, I have hid nothing from you."
       And from that same volume: 
          A monk asked, "Who is the Buddha?"
          Pai-chang replied, "Who are you?"
And with that example I'll end today's mini-lecture on some of the possibilities for dialogue.

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