The Art of Dialogue: A Symposium

October 23, 2014 | 11 books mentioned 7 12 min read

Arnold_Lakhovsky_Conversation

(The following is an imaginary symposium. The dialogue (except for the goofy shit) is adapted directly from these books: On Writing (2000) by Stephen King, On Directing Film (1991) by David Mamet, This Year You Write Your Novel (2007) by Walter Moseley, Reading Like a Writer (2006) by Francine Prose, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) by Jane Smiley, and How Fiction Works (2008) by James Wood. Apologies to all. Enjoy.)

MODERATOR

Everybody, shut up. Just be quiet. Now, I realize that a group of writers like yourselves would jump all over the chance to point out the irony of me beginning a symposium on dialogue by telling everyone to shut up, but I don’t want to hear it, okay? Spare me. Let’s just get this over with. Jane Smiley, let’s begin with you.

JANE SMILEY

Thank you, Moderator. To dare to write about many different characters, and to keep them straight without the help of actors, is in many ways a bold endeavor. It imposes several duties upon the author.

MODERATOR

Like what, for instance?

JANE SMILEY

Well, each time a character speaks, he is likely to speak in a way that differs from every other character and also from the narrator because distinctiveness is one of the main methods an author has to organize his characters so the reader can keep them straight.

MODERATOR

Interesting. A very practical observation. Dialogue helps differentiate characters. Good.

JANE SMILEY

I have mentioned order, in the sense that the readers don’t want to get the characters mixed up, but there is also the progress of the plot. Characters in dialogue are required to more or less move the story along. If they are just sitting around chatting meaninglessly, then the novel comes to be about the meaninglessness the characters are demonstrating.

DAVID MAMET

Excuse me, I completely object.

JANE SMILEY

Jesus. Of course.

MODERATOR

To what do you object, Mr. Mamet?

 DAVID MAMET

You don’t have to narrate with dialogue. The only reason people speak is to get what they want.

JANE SMILEY

I wasn’t finished, Mr. Mamet. First of all, I said “more or less move the story along.” I understand that dialogue isn’t how you tell a story. But certainly dialogue must in some way pertain to the narrative, even if they aren’t speaking of the literal plot. Depending on his role in the novel, though, a character is also required to have something interesting to say that simultaneously deepens the reader’s knowledge of him, deepens the reader’s knowledge of other characters, deepens the reader’s understanding of the story, and best of all, deepens the reader’s knowledge in general.

DAVID MAMET

No, no, no. The purpose of dialogue is not to carry information about the “character.” In the first place, there is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago. It just doesn’t exist.

WALTER MOSLEY

Wait one minute! Why are we letting David Mamet in here? Are we all aware that he’s talking about films, not novels?

DAVID MAMET

Yes, but I’ve written novels.

WALTER MOSLEY

Yeah, like two. The Village and The Old Religion.

DAVID MAMET

And Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources.

WALTER MOSLEY

Okay. Whatever, we’ll call it three. But either way, I think your view of dialogue is greatly skewed by playwriting and filmmaking. So let me please interject a bit. We’re talking about the use of dialogue. That alright?

MODERATOR

Sure, do whatever you want. See if I care.

WALTER MOSLEY

First, I agree with Dave over there that dialogue shouldn’t be used for exposition. Many new writers use dialogue to communicate information such as “My name is Frank. I come from California.” This is the simplest use of dialogue. It’s okay for a job interview or a chance meeting in a bar, but in a novel, dialogue is meant to be working overtime.

But I also agree with Jane about the many uses of dialogue. Every time characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or the mood of the scene, story, or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV (especially if the character who is speaking is not connected directly to the narrative voice); and/or (5) giving the novel a pedestrian feel.

MODERATOR

Pedestrian? Why pedestrian?

WALTER MOSLEY

Thought you didn’t care, Moderator?

MODERATOR

Don’t push your luck.

WALTER MOSLEY

To answer your question: Absolutely. Making the dialogue seem pedestrian might seem counterproductive to the passionate writer. Here you are, telling us a story of profound feeling in which the main characters are going to experience deeply felt transitions, and I’m asking you for ordinary and prosaic dialogue. If you can get the reader to identify with the everydayness of the lives of the characters and then bring them — both reader and character — to these rapturous moments, you will have fulfilled the promise of fiction. The reader is always looking for two things in the novel: themselves and transcendence. Dialogue is an essential tool to bring them there.

MODERATOR

Okay, okay. Let’s get another voice in here. Francine Prose, you’ve been sitting over there quietly. What about you? Do you think dialogue should be pedestrian?

FRANCINE PROSE

Thank you, Moderator. In one sense, yes, I do think that. Among the things I remember hearing when I was beginning to write was the following rule: you shouldn’t, and actually can’t, make fiction dialogue sound like actual speech. The repetitions, meaningless expressions, stammers, and nonsensical monosyllables with which we express hesitation, along with the clichés and banalities that constitute so much of everyday conversation, cannot and should not be used when our characters are talking. Rather, they should speak more fluently than we do, with greater economy and certitude. Unlike us, they should say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression. The idea, presumable, is that fictional dialogue should be an “improved,” cleaned-up and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. Better than “real” dialogue.

Then why is so much written dialogue less colorful and interesting than what we can overhear daily in the Internet café, the mall, and on the subway? Many people have a gift for language that flows when they are talking and dries up when they are confronted with the blank page, or when they are trying to make the characters on it speak.

MODERATOR

And you also agree that dialogue shouldn’t be used for exposition?

FRANCISE PROSE

Well, in extreme cases, yes I think I would warn against inventing those stiff, unlikely, artificial conversations in which facts are being transmitted from one character to another mainly for the benefit of the reader:

“Hi, Joe.”

“Nice to see you again, Sally.”

“What have you been doing, Joe?”

“Well, Sally, as you know, I’m an insurance investigator. I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I’m unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like.”

And so forth.

But even when novice writers avoid this sort of dialogue, what they do write often serves a single purpose — that is, to advance the plot — rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish. To see how much dialogue can achieve, it’s instructive to look at the novels of Henry Green, in which many of the important plot developments are conveyed through conversation.

MODERATOR

Oh, wonderful! Finally, some examples! I’ve been waiting for over a thousand words for this.

FRANCINE PROSE

Throughout Green’s work, dialogue provides both text and subtext, allowing us to observe the wide range of emotions that his characters feel and display, the ways in which they say and don’t say what they mean, attempt to manipulate their spouses, lovers, friends, and children, stake emotional claims, demonstrate sexual interest or unavailability, confess and conceal their hopes and fears. And it all passes by us in such a bright, engaging splash of chatter that only slowly do we realize how widely Green has cast his net, how deeply he has penetrated.

MODERATOR

Example, please.

FRANCINE PROSE

Yes, okay. Here it is:

“Did your father happen to mention that he’d taken me out the other afternoon?” she inquired.

“No,” the boy said in an uninterested voice. “Should he?”

“We ran across each other in the street. I’m afraid I can’t afford anything like the gorgeous meal he provided.”

“But curry’s my favorite,” Peter claimed. “I wish I had it every day. Decent of you to ask me.”

“No, because I do truly enjoy seeing you. It takes me out of myself. And you’ve little idea how few there are I could say that of. Though, d’you know, it could be true about your father. He’s so terribly handsome, Peter.”

The boy broke into mocking laughter, with his mouth full.

“Look out for the curry,” she warned. “You’ll blow it all over me and the table.”

When he had composed himself he said, “Well I once ate a green fig looked exactly like Dad’s face.”

Then, after a brief pause to discuss a mutual friend:

“Are your parents still in love?” she asked.

“My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?”

“Not a bit. No.”

Peter went on eating.

“They don’t even share a room.”

A little later:

“How long have they been married?”

“Lord, don’t ask me. I wouldn’t know.”

“All in all, I imagine they were still very much in love,” she suggested.

“I expect so,” he said.

“You won’t tell them I mentioned this, will you?”

In this passage from his final novel, Doting, nineteen-year-old Annabel Payton has invited Peter Middleton, a student two years younger than herself, to have lunch at an inexpensive Indian restaurant near her office. Annabel has a crush on Peter’s father — as the awkward, somewhat thick-headed Peter may or may not be aware — and is attempting to extract information about Peter’s parents from her lunch companion. Word by word, the dialogue captures the rhythm of someone trying to discover something without disclosing something else, of an interlocutor who cannot stop pushing until she finds what she is seeking. It’s a model of social inquisition carried out by someone who doesn’t much care about the person she is interrogating, except that she would like to keep him from forming a low opinion of her and from figuring out what she is doing.

At the end of the scene, Annabel asks Peter if he thinks his mother is beautiful:

“Yes,” he said, rather gruff. “As a matter of fact.”

“Me too,” she echoed, but in a wan little voice. “She has everything. Hair, teeth, skin, those wide-apart eyes. By any standard your father’s a very lucky man.”

“Why?”

“To have such a wife of course. Would you say she liked me, Peter?”

“Fairly, yes. No reason not to, is there?”

“Oh none,” she agreed casually.

MODERATOR

Let’s get technical for a second. Why is that scene so suggestive of things without spelling them out? What makes Green’s use of dialogue so effective?

JAMES WOOD

Can I step in here for a moment?

MODERATOR

Oh, I didn’t realize we had critics here, too.

JAMES WOOD

Well, I’m also a novelist. The Book Against God. Anyone? Anyone?

MODERATOR

We haven’t read it. But go on. Maybe a critic’s opinion will be useful here.

JAMES WOOD

Wonderful. In 1950, Henry Green gave a little talk on BBC radio about dialogue in fiction. Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters’ thoughts, hardly ever explains a character’s motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to readers (“she said, grandiloquently”). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with readers, and that nothing kills “life” so much as “explanation.”

MODERATOR

So you think the excerpt that Francine presented is effective because of the lack of “explanation”?

JAMES WOOD

Yes, information is communicated silently, slowly, through careful accumulation of a character’s actions, their words.

Here’s a working example. Green imagined a husband and wife, long married, sitting at home one evening. At 9:30, the husband says he is going across the road to the pub. Green noted that the wife’s first response, “Will you be long?,” could be rendered in scores of different ways (“Back soon?” “When will you be back?” “Off for long?” “How long will it be before you are back?”), each one capable of a distinct resonance of meaning. The crucial thing, maintained Green, was not to hedge the dialogue with explanation, as in:

“How soon d’you suppose they’ll chuck you out?”

Olga, as she asked her husband this question, wore the look of a wounded animal, her lips were curled back from the teeth in a grimace and the tone of voice she used betrayed all those years a woman can give by proxy to the sawdust, the mirrors and the stale smell of beer of public bars.

Green felt strongly that such kind of authorial “assistance” was overbearing, because in life we don’t really know what people are like. “We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?”

MODERATOR

Do you agree with all of that? It seems a bit strict, doesn’t it? Almost overbearing?

JAMES WOOD

Yes, you’re quite right. Green, counseling against being overbearing, is laying down a fair amount of prescription himself, and we do not need to take his doctrine scripturally. Notice that when Green does his parody of explanation, he also falls into a deliberately breathy, second-rate style (“wore the look of a wounded animal”), whereas we can imagine something more continent, less offensive: “Olga knew what time he would come home, and in what state, stinking of beer and tobacco. Ten years of this, ten years.” Fulsome explainers like George Eliot, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and many others would all have to retire themselves in Green’s universe.

MODERATOR

Okay, okay. Let’s take a pause for a moment. What have we learned here so far? Anything? It seems that every rule you try to make about dialogue has many contingencies, many exceptions, ways around it. Characters shouldn’t speak in blatant exposition but subtle forms of expository information are allowed. They should sound like “real” people but not exactly like real people, as normal conversation consists of ums and ers and likes and, truthfully, uninteresting filler. Writers should let the characters’ speech say more about them than the narrator, though we have numerous successful examples of writers who break this rule. Finally, dialogue should always be performing multiple tasks at once. Is there anything else? Anything practical? Anything at all like a rule?

STEPHEN KING

Yes, I have something to add.

MODERATOR

Go on.

STEPHEN KING

Adverbs. I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that writers use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to maker sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

“Put it down!” she shouted.

“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.

“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. Contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous.

Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:

“Put the gun down, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.

“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.

“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

Don’t do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

MODERATOR

Okay, good. A rule of sorts. I like it. Yes, Mr. Mamet?

DAVID MAMET

To get what they want! That’s why people talk!

MODERATOR

So what do you want, Mr. Mamet? Why are you talking right now?

DAVID MAMET

I want future generations to make great art! I’m trying to help.

MODERATOR

Help us now by being quiet. What was the point of this symposium? Have we really learned anything? Let’s get the writer in here.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Yes?

MODERATOR

What was the point of this? What, could you not think of something to say yourself?

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Well, kind of. I realized that I didn’t have anything new to add about dialogue. All the observations I could make I’d first heard articulated in these books. What could I add?

MODERATOR

That’s laziness disguised as modesty, Mr. Clark. I’m not buying it.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Well, the other thing was that none of these writers had anything definitive to say. Everything they said had some qualification to it. Or, if they were more stringent, I could think of a great counter example. So I thought that if I put a bunch of voices together and showed how difficult dialogue is to even talk about, I’d maybe contribute something useful.

MODERATOR

Let me spoil it for you: you didn’t.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Oh. Sorry.

JAMES WOOD

Can I go now? I’ve got a long flight.

WALTER MOSELEY

Me, too. Plus I’m hungry. The invite said there would be snacks. I don’t see any snacks.

JANE SMILEY

Everyone up for a bite to eat?

WALTER MOSELEY

Sure.

JAMES WOOD

Alright.

FRANCINE PROSE

I could eat.

DAVID MAMET

Fuckin’ a.

JANE SMILEY

Not you, David.

(DAVID MAMET exits, pursued by a bear.)

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Ha ha!

JANE SMILEY

Or you, Jonathan. None of us even know who you are.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Oh. Sorry.

WALTER MOSELEY

Plus you only put us all together because ours were the books you happen to have on your shelf.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

But at least that means I bought all your books!

WALTER MOSELEY

Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man.

(Everyone exits except for MODERATOR and JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK.)

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Looks like it’s just you and me.

MODERATOR

We’re the exact same person. So, basically, you’re by yourself in your room.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Like always.

MODERATOR

And you’re talking to yourself.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

Yeah. Funny. In a symposium about dialogue I end up alone, talking to myself.

MODERATOR

And what does that tell you?

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

That dialogue is a conversation a writer has with himself, a conversation he has with his characters and a conversation between characters. That it’s all three. That, ultimately, the art of dialogue lies within the writer, determined by how he perceives people, human interaction, motivation. That dialogue, as much as it speaks to a character’s identity, speaks to the writer’s as well. That rules are almost impossible. That a writer has to engage with dialogue, be in conversation with it, so to speak.

MODERATOR

I was going to say that you need some real human friends. I mean, listen to yourself: you’re talking to yourself about fake characters talking to each other. Pretty sad.

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK

You know what’s worse? To me, it isn’t sad at all. If the only dialogue I have in my life is the dialogue of great writers, I don’t have a whole lot to complain about. They’re great conversationalists, at least.

MODERATOR

Yeah. At least you’ve got that. Come on. Save the document and be done with this.

 

END

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, Read It Forward, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.

7 comments:

  1. Very refreshing way to share information that a lot of us have read (in some of the same writer’s books). Reminded me of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Very entertaining (and educational)!

  2. This was on time. Thank you. I’m new at this, and this gave me a little hope. Plus, it was fucking hilarious! I will be adding those books you drew from (especially the one from Henry a Green … Wow!)

  3. Mamet pursued by a bear — love it — love the piece and I, too, will be looking up Henry Green (she brayed loftily).

  4. I loved the humor in this piece. This is a fantastic way to talk about dialogue and illustrate how it works in a story, especially for people who might not know some of the above authors.

  5. [“Here’s a working example. Green imagined a husband and wife, long married, sitting at home one evening. At 9:30, the husband says he is going across the road to the pub. Green noted that the wife’s first response, “Will you be long?,” could be rendered in scores of different ways (“Back soon?” “When will you be back?” “Off for long?” “How long will it be before you are back?”), each one capable of a distinct resonance of meaning.’}

    Oh, Henry Green, Henry Green. The “writer’s writer.” Perhaps being too much under the influence of Robert Aickman over the past week, I offer my take on the fate of “Henry Green’s Couple,” springing from their classic dialogue.

    A husband and wife eked out a living as adjunct professors at a small college in western New England. To save on fuel costs, they wore bulky wool sweaters during the winter. The husband’s refusal to have a large hole on his lower left sleeve repaired was a point of contention between them. One evening, a long piece of yarn began to dangle from the husband into his bowl of lentil soup. The wife stabbed him through the eye with her knitting needle, finished his bowl of lentil soup, and began to darn. Fifteen hours later, she was led away in handcuffs, muttering softly “The hole…the hole…the hole.”

    Moe Murph
    (Great section on Henry Green, including more on his dialogue example, in “The Art of Fiction” by David Lodge)

  6. Correction: The detailed section on Henry Green was in Lodge’s “The Practice of Writing.” Another wonderful book.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *