One of the compliments that my fiction writing sometimes receives is the natural sounding dialogue. While any writer will swoon over even the slightest compliment, when someone praises my dialogue, I can’t help but think of that Dolly Parton line, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” After years of writing really bad dialogue (stilted, clichéd, and dull, dull, dull!), studying how others do it, and finally gaining an understanding of how dialogue relates to all the other elements of fiction, I finally feel like I at least have a clue. Nevertheless, I still have more to learn.
First of all, it’s really hard. Being blessed with a good ear for everyday conversation, being a “sensitive observer,” doesn’t buy you much. Conversation is not dialogue. One of the reasons that today’s so-called Reality Shows are actually scripted (shock!) is that normal everyday conversation, when listened to by an outsider, is unbearably boring. For all the talking we may do in real life, we really don’t say anything. We never say what we really think or reveal what we really feel. Transcribe a normal kitchen table conversation word for word and there it will lie, limp and lifeless on the page. Nothing is revealed. Nothing happens.
The purpose of any work of art – a painting, a song, a play, a poem – is to reveal a truth. It may be a truth that was once known but is now forgotten, a truth that we see every day but fail to recognize, or a truth that we intuitively know but never fully articulate. When our audience recognizes that truth, we say that it “resonates” with them. But the sunlight in an Edward Hopper painting is not real sunlight. It is a mixture of pigments and texture that creates an illusion of sunlight that strikes us as true. So it is with fiction. No matter how natural and realistic it may appear, it is not reality, it is an illusion of reality. If a piece of fiction is compelling, engaging, and emotionally moving, and its dialogue seems realistic, it is only because it has been carefully crafted to appear realistic.
All too often, in classes and in textbooks on creative writing, dialogue has been taught as a distinct discipline, divorced from the other elements of a story. Instead of developing an understanding of how dialogue relates to all the other elements, we get rules of thumb that, while true, don’t really help much. “Every line of dialogue must either reveal something that the reader needs to know or serve to move the story along.” Great. What the hell does “move the story along” mean? This kind of advice, disconnected from any consideration of the other elements of the art form leads to stilted, unnatural dialogue, like a paint-by-numbers painting where you can still see the numbers:
“Say Bill, that’s a really big Colt 45 in your holster. Where did you get it?”
Elsewhere, these same sources will say, “Every character must want something.” Also true, but never placed in context.
Walk into a creative writing class in the middle of the semester and ask, in drill sergeant fashion, “What does Odysseus want?” and in unison, the class will say (or should say), “To go home!”
One of the fundamental principles of western literary tradition is that it is character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. Popular, or genre fiction, on the other hand, tends to be plot-driven. The characters, what they want and what they feel, is less important than the plot. There are exceptions of course, and the masters of various genres do write character-driven stories. John Grisham, for example, writes tightly plotted pot-boilers that are nonetheless driven by his characters’ desires (The Rainmaker, The Testament, The Street Lawyer). Tom Clancy, on the other hand, is all plot and no character. His plots are intricate and we learn some fascinating facts about our nation’s security apparatus, but his characters leak sawdust all over the page, and his dialogue is the most dreadful ever published. His books make pretty good movies, but that’s because there’s less plot in them and more character.
Great literature, no matter how intricately plotted, is about desire. The Iliad, which contains some of the most epic and violent battle scenes in all of literature, is not about the Trojan War. Consider the first words, as translated by Richmond Lattimore:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
All that follows is the result of the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon. As the story unfolds, it is driven by the desires of the characters, and the most memorable scenes, the ones that make us read through to the end, are not the bloody battles, but the scenes where desires are revealed and shown in conflict. It is written as poetry, translated from an ancient language, about an ancient people living in an ancient culture, yet when the characters speak to one another, in as stylized a manner as one can imagine, their desires ring true across the centuries that separate us from them.
So where does that leave the modern fiction writer? Dialogue, even when it is serving up exposition, must always reveal desire. Because of that, we need to set aside the goal of trying to sound natural. Art is artificial. Elizabethans didn’t break into soliloquy any more than twenty-first century Americans do.
In real life, people don’t say what they think and would rather die than reveal what they really desire. In fiction, they must do both of these things, or there is no conflict, there is no story, and worst of all, it will not resonate with the reader. It is that resonance that creates the illusion that the dialogue is realistic. It is when characters say what they would not say in real-life that creates those dramatic scenes where conflicting desires explode on the page.
This has been a lesson not easily learned, and even in the stories I’ve had published so far, I don’t think I’ve accomplished it completely in all of them, but I’ve gotten better at it. Many years ago, I wrote the first draft of a story about a young couple on spring break during their last year of college. I set it aside and forgot about it when I stopped writing for about twenty years. Finally one day I pulled it out of my box of old manuscripts. There was a lot of good writing in it, and the passage of time had given me some perspective, so I set to work revising it. When I finally got it to be the best I thought it could be, I started sending it out. No one wanted it. Over the course of a year, it got forty-nine rejections. During that year, I continued to revise it. I rewrote the ending. I added a coda. I took the coda out, I added it back in. I had fellow writers read it. No one could tell me what was wrong with it. Some of the rejections included complements on the writing, but with the usual, “not right for us.”
I finally noticed, since I kept changing the ending, that there was something missing that was leaving the reader feel unsatisfied at the end. Indeed, I felt that way myself. I took a step back, figuratively, and did some simple analysis of the characters, essentially asking myself, “What does he want, what does she want?” What I began to realize was that although my characters certainly loved one another, their internal desires were sending them in different directions. Those desires were apparent in the story, but nowhere were they directly and dramatically shown in conflict. I found the point in the story, a final argument between them, where the dramatic stage had been set, but neither character said what they really felt. As a result, instead of climax, the story just fizzled out. As a writer, I had been a coward. I didn’t know what was missing, so I looked at the argument sentence by sentence until I found the line where the woman says, “Talk to your family.” I changed it to “Talk to your father.” Without getting too Freudian about it, my narrator became unleashed and said everything that he never would have said in real life.
After that revision, I sent it out to three more journals. About a month later, and on the same day, I got three acceptances, putting me in in the awkward position of telling two journals that the story was no longer available. For a writer, that’s a good problem to have.
What was interesting was that while readers were left unsatisfied by the story as it had originally been written and rewritten, it wasn’t specifically clear what was causing that dissatisfaction. The problem wasn’t in what was there, the problem was in what was missing, and the only person who could find out what was missing was me. I discovered it when I realized I needed to stop being realistic and to tell the truth.
The foundation of Western Literature and a few guilty pleasures from John Grisham. As for Tom Clancy save some time and just watch “The Hunt for Red October.” The desires of Sean Connery and Sam Neill drive the story plus you get to hear Fred Thompson, former presidential candidate, say, “The Russians don’t take a dump without a plan, son.” That kills me.
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