Saturday, 11 May 2013


Where narrative is the roadway of a story, dialogue is the stream-fed pool where we stop to drink. For new writers, the fatal words their friends will always say is "Your dialogue is great - you're really good at it." This leads the unfortunate writer to neglect the story and plunge into long, self-indulgent runs of dialogue, to which their embarrassed friends respond: "[Oh no, do I have to read more of this stuff, but] your dialogue is really great."
Dialogue, delicately used, is a close-up of character. Here's Vronsky watching Anna Karenina, the first time he sees her, from that old sensationalist Tolstoy's book of doomed passion:

Madame Karenina, however, did not wait for her brother, but catching sight of him she stepped out with her light, resolute step. And as soon as her brother had reached her, with a gesture that struck Vronsky by its decision and its grace, she flung her left arm around his neck, drew him rapidly to her, and kissed him warmly. Vronsky gazed, never taking his eyes from her, and smiled, he could not have said why. But recollecting that his mother was waiting for him, he went back again into the carriage.
"She’s very sweet, isn’t she?" said the countess of Madame Karenina. "Her husband put her with me, and I was delighted to have her. We’ve been talking all the way. And so you, I hear ... vous filez le parfait amour. Tant mieux, mon cher, tant mieux."
"I don’t know what you are referring to, maman," he answered coldly. "Come, maman, let us go."
Madame Karenina entered the carriage again to say good-bye to the countess.
"Well, countess, you have met your son, and I my brother," she said. "And all my gossip is exhausted. I should have nothing more to tell you."
We see Anna through Vronsky's eyes - warm, impulsive, and, of course, resolute. Then we have his mother mischief-making - and Anna letting him know that she knows full well, and making a little intimacy with him against his mother.
And look at how Ernest Hemingway uses dialogue to describe love at first sight:
They were all eating out of the platter, not speaking, as is the Spanish custom. It was rabbit cooked with onions and green peppers and there were chick peas in the red wine sauce. It was well cooked, the rabbit meat flaked off the bones, and the sauce was delicious. Robert Jordan drank another cup of wine while he ate. The girl watched him all through the meal. Every one else was watching his food and eating. Robert Jordan wiped up the last of the sauce in front of him with a piece of bread, piled the rabbit bones to one side, wiped the spot where they had been for sauce, then wiped his fork clean with the bread, wiped his knife and put it away and ate the bread. He leaned over and dipped his cup full of wine and the girl still watched him.
Robert Jordan drank half the cup of wine but the thickness still came in his throat when he spoke to the girl.
“How art thou called?” he asked. Pablo looked at him quickly when he heard the tone of his voice. Then he got up and walked away. 
Nothing is said - he just asks her what her name is. But the sensual description of the simple meal, followed by that question - a question that is really a declaration - immediately tells the reader what's going on here. More doomed love.
Dialogue, if it's used right, shines a light into the character you're writing about. Dialogue is the lamp Diogenes carried: it reveals an honest man in daylight.
It should never be trimmed around with the author's instructive adverbs - we should never write:
"Oh, yeah?" he laughed sarcastically.
because if you write that, you're stealing from the readers, who should be discovering the character of the people whose story they're following, by the tone and content of their speech, not through a big authorial finger pointing down from above, saying: "Looky, this is what I mean."
And remember that dialogue doesn't have to be the truth. Sometimes the most powerful words are those your readers know to be lies. In Casablanca there is a scene where a naive English couple is approached by a helpful stranger on the street. He puts his arm around the man's shoulder and says:
I beg of you, Monsieur, watch yourself. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere, everywhere.
Naturally, when the Englishman pats his pocket, his wallet is gone. A wonderful piece of dialogue. A beginner would have had the earnest warning, but Casablanca's writers whip it around and give it a spin, by making the very man who's warning them be the thief. Fabulous.


Unknown said...

Great piece, the excerpts drive the point home nicely. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Great piece. The excerpts illustrate the point nicely. Thank you.