Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Jumpstart V: Dialogue in Fiction

I have a few guiding principles of dialogue. Many of you know me. Many of you know that I spent a a few months homeless, jobless and writing for the cartoons. What a life. If anything more, I can say that I once found my way into myself during that time. Writing for the screen is very different from writing fiction. For the screen, it's all dialogue. That's it, nothing more. It's an entirely different way of looking at a skill set a fiction writer already has. I am verbose. Let's return to the guiding principles. First, Dr. Tami Silver said once that we do not talk to one another; but rather, we talk through one another. Seems potent to me, and I have been thinking about that statement since 1996. We do talk through one another. I also think of Kyle Bass, a beautiful playwright-poet. Once when working with Kyle, another student presented a “play” for our group to read. After it was read, Kyle suggested she should trim the dialogue by stopping reading at the first period. It worked wonderfully. Whether he said it or not, the less said was the better. So, guiding principles? 1) we talk through one another and 2) make it brief.

Now, let me suggest a great writing exercise.

Talking through one another. You have two characters, and for one of them it is their last date.


Talking through one another. This is the Boston-Amarillo connection. If you have these two characters, both American, both speaking English (sort of) what are they talking about?

Here are a few things to think about as you work through these two exercises: writing good dialogue is every conversation you've ever heard and it's every argument gone exactly the way it should go. I, for one, have had an argument that I thought about for hours or days after and thought, “I should have said...” When writing, and rewriting, this I should have said is overcome.

Some advice? Well, read plays. I loved David Mamet's American Buffalo. I also loved Lorriane Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. I venture to guess that it took a long time for each of those playwrights to say exactly what they wanted their characters to say. It's a process, for sure.

Also, learn by doing. Write dialogue. Write more dialogue. Read it aloud and see how you feel about it.

In fiction, I have some favorites worthy of discussion. Colette's “The Other Wife,” has some great dialogue. It's Marc and his wife in a crowded restaurant. He's trying to hide his ex-wife from his current wife. So, he keeps talking and tries to keep the secret from her. Wonderful stuff. Colette says more in this short story than some novelist can say in hundreds of pages.

William Faulkner's “That Evening Sun,” and Raymond Carver's “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” are both great examples. They are both wonderful examples of dialogue attribution. With the Faulkner piece the he saids and she saids are sometimes cumbersome. Carver's dialogue attribution becomes almost hypnotic. In both cases, the attribution is effective and the dialogue is real, natural.

Recently, I revisited J. D. Salinger's “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which is the first piece in Nine Stories. The telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother is wonderful. The conversation is also brief, and they clearly talk through on another.

The last conversation about dialogue examples, strangely enough: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On the Western Front. I read the Ballantine Books edition translated by A. W. Wheen. Sometimes, translations do make a difference. Having spent some time in Germany during my youth, I am familiar with the language, so for what it's worth I think this translation is good. The story is horrifying, it's war. The dialogue is consistent throughout the entire book. The dialogue is ever present in the narrative, and the narrative almost feels like dialogue. The voices of each soldier are like Paul Bäumer's monologue throughout. The book is not an easy read despite the elegance and simplicity of language. It is said it is the greatest war novel of all time. To me, it is the greatest anti-war novel ever written.

To become a good crafter of dialogue, it takes practice. That's all. Write some, and write some more. I don't think I'm alone in this statement: a writer learns by doing. And dialogue is important. It develops your characters, it gives meaning to their conflicts, to their desires and concerns and it helps to push the plot along. Keep at it.

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