Baby talk. Small talk. Sexy talk. Rant, whisper, inform. Stutter, harangue, order. Insult, complain, gossip. Coo. 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. Talk talk.
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, just 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, that’s a terrible take.
I guess I have to clean up my speech for the written page because that sentence, 28 words, said diddly squat.
My travail with writing dialogue is speech that sounds just like mine, as if my quirky phrasing had been loaned to my characters. Too many words, correct grammar, a spiraling conversation that takes the reader way out of the story. I talk like that too, monologues that explain the history of my world before I get to the point, detracting from the topic. The delete button is my most trusted tool when I write dialogue, and passages are much improved when I wield it with vigor.
As part of my toolbox for writing I eavesdrop, listening for speech patterns and phrases I can apply 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 and motive becomes apparent.
I also read, as any writer does. A character pulls down the mask on 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 minimal 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 intellectually about dialogue to my writing demands a lot of time, introspection, a boatload of revisions, and sometimes a train wreck that I have to haul to the scrap heap. But I’m proud of my successes. In The Tree House Mother, two teenage girls park on a hill and talk their hearts out in a crucial scene, the 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. At the end of the conversation both girls find that words can only tell part of their story given that even the meaning of words thought to be mutually clear is enriched by one’s experience. As they realize how much innocence each has lost under different circumstances but with equal pain, both end up in tears. Conversation has reverted to the mother tongue: crying for help.
Often it’s not what’s said but what’s intimated. Figuring out what to jettison requires me to trust my 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 serviceably describe and more than the false flattery of her sisters. Cordelia is unable to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The audience grasps 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 is Where Did Mama Go? It takes place in a residence for Alzheimer’s sufferers, so a great deal of the story is 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 mysterious, peppered with curses, stares, or tears. If they speak at all. Their most articulate speech happens in their behavior. 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 raw, visceral core. Readers have responded by telling me they are overwhelmed by certain scenes. 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.
Be well, friend.