by Elizabeth Spencer
Recently, I’ve been interviewing people for an article I’m working on. I record the conversations on my phone, upload the file to an online transcription service, and within minutes the spoken word appears on my screen as text. The most interesting thing about this process—in the context of fiction writing—is how boring these transcripts would be as dialogue if I tried to copy and paste them into a story. In real life, human dialogue is dragged down by pauses — the um’s, ah’s, and other verbal tics we employ as we translate our thoughts into sentences. And speaking of sentences, they are rarely complete in real time. We trail off, interrupt ourselves, circle back to the point, make fragmented exclamations.
The best dialogue, then, is not entirely realistic. Just as a photographer chooses the most interesting subject in a scene and composes the picture accordingly, fiction writers also work through a process of selection. As Edith Wharton writes in The Writing of Fiction, “All art is re-presentation —the giving back in conscious form of the shapeless raw material of experience.”
You need to spend a lot of time listening to how people talk in order to distill the essence of speech—its rhythm and sound—on the page. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott credits Ernest Hemingway for the modern style of dialogue that is “terse, sharp, and lean.” For example, his popular story “Hills Like White Elephants” is only four pages long and mostly consists of dialogue. In the following exchange the two characters, described as “the American and the girl with him,” sit at a train station bar in Spain and order anisette liqueur.
“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
“Oh, cut it out.”
“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”
“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.
“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”
“That was bright.”
“I wanted to try this new drink: That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”
“I guess so.”
This passage is certainly terse. In fact, it’s so lean as to appear deceptively simple. Hemingway has cut all the clearing of throats, meaningless small talk, and other “filler” that would likely appear in a real conversation between two disenchanted lovers. At the same time, Hemingway gives the male character the shortest possible responses to his girlfriend’s queries. This is a clue that she wants to talk about something he’d rather avoid. “Let’s try and have a fine time,” he says, suggesting that fun no longer comes effortlessly to this couple. Hemingway succeeds in conveying the emotional states and motivations of his characters. They don’t say much, but most readers will find this scene relatable, having experienced some version of it in their own lives.
Subtext is another way to describe character motivation. In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, the author describes the process of writing dialogue as “listening to how the characters invite and obstruct communication.” Carlson also reminds us that “everyone has an agenda.” Thus, good dialogue implies each character’s agenda (regardless of how conscious of it the character himself is) without ever coming out and stating it.
In “Hills Like White Elephants,” neither character uses the words “pregnancy” or “abortion.” But we come to see that this is the subtext of the story. An accidental pregnancy has occurred and the two characters disagree over what to do. Feelings, of course, are also part of the subtext, and here the girlfriend (Jig) also feels insecure about the relationship. At one point she says, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” The man offers plenty of reassurances, but is he sincere? The reader has to decide for herself. Ultimately, the couple is engaged in a kind of negotiation, with Jig seeking a promise of lasting love from her boyfriend in exchange for doing what he wants.
Dialogue isn’t just about spoken words. What the characters do with their hands and bodies as they speak or while the other person is speaking is just as important as the speech itself. In The Making of a Story, Alice LaPlante offers the following tips for filling in the space between sentences:
Gesture is a part of dialogue.
Silence is a part of dialogue.
Make the world part of your dialogue.
In this scene from “Community Life” by Lorrie Moore, Nick and Olena’s conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a bat:
“I’ve made a doctor’s appointment,” she said to Nick, but he had the water running in the tub and didn’t hear her. “To find out if there’s anything wrong with me.”
When he got out, he approached her, nothing on but a towel, pulled her close to his chest, and lowered her to floor, right there in the hall by the bathroom door. Something was swooping, back and forth in an arc above her. May Day, May Day. She froze.
“What was that?” She pushed him away.
“What?” He rolled over on his back and looked. Something was flying around in the stairwell—a bird. “A bat,” he said.
“Oh my God,” cried Olena.
“The heat can bring them out in these old rental houses,” he said, stood, rewrapped his towel. “Do you have a tennis racket?”
She showed him where it was. “I’ve only played tennis once,” she said. “Do you want to play tennis sometime?” But he proceeded to stalk the bat in the dark stairwell.
“Now don’t get hysterical,” he said.
“I’m already hysterical.”
“Don’t get—There!” he shouted, and she heard the thwack of the racket against the wall, and the soft drop of the bat to the landing.
She suddenly felt sick. “Did you have to kill it?” she said.
“I don’t know. Capture it. Rough it up a little.” She felt guilty, as if her own loathing had brought about its death.
Moore uses everything in this scene: physical action, interior thoughts, and sensory detail. As in the Hemingway story, the subtext of this scene implies trouble in the relationship. When Nick says, “don’t get hysterical,” he may be talking about more than just this moment. And his effort to fix the problem of the bat fails to comfort Olena, who is just as distressed over its death as she was at its appearance in the house.
“At its best, a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience,” Edith Wharton wrote of the short story. Keep this in mind as you craft dialogue. The only thing more boring than discussing the weather yourself is reading about two characters wondering whether or not it will rain tomorrow.
Instead, get to the center of things. What does each character want in this moment? What are they hiding from themselves, and one another? What are they not saying? It’s okay to come up with better retorts in fiction than you would in real life. Many writers are the type of people who ruminate about fights, first dates, and every other situation in which they didn’t know what to say in the moment—only hours or days later do you come up with the perfectly funny, cutting, or smart line. That’s okay—you can use it in your fiction.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.