Friday, February 3, 2012

Entry #37 - “On Writing Dialogue: How You Say It Matters”

This week I arrived early to meet a writer friend in a local coffee shop. While waiting, I noticed a drama unfolding at a nearby table that involved a woman tearfully telling her friend about a terrible work evaluation she had gotten that morning that would likely cause her to be fired.  Her friend murmured all the appropriate comforting words, while the narrator grew more agitated as she spoke about the experience.  After the friend left, the woman angrily called a number of people on her cell phone, and although I could only hear half of these conversations, each one added new information to the story. She said that the supervisor said, “Giving you this evaluation has made my day.” She told another person that she believed she was a victim of age discrimination because the supervisor told her she planned to hire two younger workers who would work twice as hard for the same pay she was getting.

As I took notes I thought about how dialogue functions in both fiction and nonfiction. This scene started me thinking about what people say and don’t say when they talk and how writers capture dialogue that sounds true.

Usually we think of dialogue as moving action forward and capturing the speaker’s voice. What I wrote above is a summary of a complex transaction that provides my observed facts, but it doesn’t capture the voice, or character of the speaker as realistically as direct dialogue would, but I use it to illustrate my point.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
Writers of both fiction and nonfiction have a number of dialogue choices to make as they write. The word dialogue originally meant “to connect” or “to converse” and describes verbal interactions at a surface conversation level, as well as the deeper subtexts of meaning based on context and past history of the speakers. Dialogue includes a subtext of actual words and gestures. For example in the brief exchange I describe in the opening paragraph of this piece, I should mention also that as the woman talked on her cell phone about bringing a lawsuit against her employers, a man at a nearby table leaned forward and frowned and the woman sitting across from him rolled her eyes and shook her head, as she too listened to the nearby conversation. So gesture itself, even those of others, is an important part of the dialogue process. It helps set scene and forward motion for plot.

In Your Life as Story, author Tristine Rainer describes the dialogue options open to both fiction and nonfiction writers.  Rainer says:
  1. “Direct Dialogue is contained within quotation marks and is the most dramatic and immediate type of conversation.”
  2. Summary Dialogue doesn’t give the exact speaker’s words, but instead suggests a much longer conversation condensed and presented, some might even say, filtered through the narrator.”
  3. Indirect dialogue reports more details (specifics) of conversation than summary dialogue, but is more efficient than direct dialogue, in that it renders the feeling of what was said without directly quoting it.” 

Writing effective dialogue is key to writing scenes that work, whether it’s a scene for fiction or nonfiction. 

People naturally speak in half-finished thoughts, grunts and gestures and rarely respond to a previous comment or statement.  It is good to listen carefully to what people say, how they say it, and notice what can be left out in the retelling of it.

Which is to say that writers face a range of dialogue structural choices as they seek to capture the language of characters and set up credible scenes. Fiction and nonfiction writers make decisions about the dialogue needs of each particular scene as they attempt to recreate natural speech. The real challenge is to condense conversation to its essence and to find the right balance between words and gesture to reveal character and conflict.

“Conscious work in writing good dialogue comes in editing it, taking out every word that is extraneous without ruining its naturalism.”
                                                                          ---Tristine Rainer.
“A writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as memories.”   ----John Irving.

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