The last but by far not the least of the 4 Tools in the Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue.
This may also be the most fun tool for both the writer and the involved & engaged reader.
Afterall, who doesn’t like to over-hear someone else’s conversation – and who doesn’t really like eavesdropping on someone’s supposedly guarded chit-chat.
But – it’s not about simply transcribing what’s been heard.
Dialogue might be the hardest of the 4 Tools to employ successfully – and believably.
The Writer is not a court reporter, merely parroting what’s been said.
Truth be told: all our mentor Charles Dickens jump-started as a writer as by . . . yes . . . being a court reporter. Mercifully for all his readers he soon realized how bland and boring normal “talk” really is.
So, when he lets Magwitch hold forth to Pip, the readers hear a truly original and most revealing voice:
“You young dog,” said the man, licking his lips, “what fat cheeks you ha’ got.”
I believe they were fat, though I was at that time undersized, for my years, and not strong.
“Darn me if I couldn’t eat ‘em,” said the man, with a threatening shake of his head, “and if I han’t half a mind to’it!” . . .
“Now lookee here,” he said, “the question being whether you’re to be let to live. You know what a file is?”
“And you know what wittles is?”
After each question he tilted me over a little more, so as to give me a greater sense of helplessness and danger.
“You get me a file.” He tilted me again. “And you get me wittles.” He tilted me again. “You bring ‘em both to me.” He tilted me again. “Or I’ll have your heart and liver out.”
What’s the point then of dialogue like this?
Let characters speak their individual & even idiosyncratic minds – through word choices, sentence patterns, grammatical expressions, dialect, figures of speech, even mis-pronunciations and malaproprisms.
Bu don’t over-do it!
As Nathaniel Hawthorne would assert: don’t give the reader the entire dish; provide the essence, the scent of the food in the dish.
Of course, back to Henry James again: pages go can by without one word of real dialogue, although James would provide his interpretation, at length, of ‘what’ was said – but not ‘how’ it was spoken.
At the other extreme, Hemingway sometimes modified & streamlined dialogue to a conversation devoid of any N-A-D, as in his short story “Hills like White Elephants.”
That short story was an extremity by him: to make a point. Several of them actually.
Mostly though in his prose, he utilized ‘some’ N-A-D, truly in moderation.
Another strategy for dialogue can sometimes be soliloquy, stream-of-consciousness, or interior monologue: a ‘conversation’ entirely in a character’s mind; as Mary soliloquizes at the end of the poem “kneeling at the Manger.”
in their furtive sidelong glances
causes me to further ponder
they have been trained
to know a sacrificial lamb when
they see One
However, most typical and more usual is a passage from Zach Winderl’s Atom & Go: Trinity.
Readers of his first book in the Trilogy, Atom & Go: Genesis, remarked repeatedly how his characters’ conversations moved the narration & action forward if not at warp speed, then at least somehow between the speed of sound and the speed of light.
This brief passage from Atom & Go: Trinity showcases his ability and mastery.
“Da,” Margo galloped into the room on an imaginary horse. “Watch Turtle, please.”
“Who’s Turtle?” Atom turned back from the window.
“My horse,” Margo rolled her eyes in exasperation and as she put her little hands on her hips he snatched a glimpse of a young Kozue.
“Oh, Turtle. Bring her over,” a sad smile crept to his eyes.
“Turtle’s a boy, Da.”
“Lilly?” the dying man lifted his head with feeble strain. His eyes fluttered open like delicate butterflies.
“No, sir,” Atom returned to his seat, leading Turtle with subtle turns of his wrist. “That’s just my daughter, Margo.”
The man rolled his head and studied the girl.
One of his outstanding traits for mastering dialogue is no two characters ever speak alike.
As a result this Winderl can skip the onerous repetition of speech tags and identifiers: because readers know the character’s individual speech patterns – vocabulary, sentence patterns, syntax, sentence rhythm.
The engaged & involved readers merrily read along on the page at least at the speed of sound.
Finally, the point of using all 4 of these Tools seamlessly and effortlessly?
In the next part, 6, that strategy will be revealed.
As always, keep at it, keep at it, keep at it – and ever true, keep at it in the Black.
Guest post by C. Winderl