By Steve Weddle
I was almost to the grocery story when she called.
“Hey, what’s up? You OK? Where are you?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Tony got arrested for killing a stripper.”
“You sure know how to party without me.”
“No. Really. He did. I just got him a lawyer.”
“Oh. You’re serious? Tony’s charged with murder?”
“You feel like going into details now?”
“I’m on my way to the store for liquor and pizza. Tomorrow I’m gonna look around for who really killed her.”
“So that’s a ‘no’?”
“What?” I asked.
“You don’t want to go into details now?”
“I thought those were the details.”
Neither of us said anything. Great.
“You want to call me later?”
“Be careful,” she said.
“Yeah. Hey, Kate.”
“Uh, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know. Just, you know. Us. Whatever us is.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”
We hung up. I went inside the store and couldn’t find anything I wanted.
A situation. Two people talking. Dialogue. Does the reader need more? How much more? Should the reader see the inner monologue of one of the characters? Both? How much detail of the scene does the reader need? Should you use details here to slow down the dialogue? To carry meaning? To build symbols?
These are the sorts of questions every writer deals with. To quote or paraphrase. To provide summary.
That dialogue is from a scene I’m writing. Probably near the end things need to slow down a bit as the emotion settles in. Start quickly to get the reader into the story. Then slow down when you want to make an impact. Writers follow this with action all the time.
A novelist might set something up – the killer is just about to enter the room where the main character is passed out drunk. Once the writer sets that up, then the writer can shift the point of view or spend a couple of paragraphs detailing the scene. Or showing inner monologue. All to build tension.
That’s in the action scenes. We slow things down to build tension. We have many ways to play with the action scenes, to work with the reader’s expectations in telling the story. But how many options do we have for dialogue? For running the inner monologue with the dialogue?
I’ve been reading John McFetridge’s SWAP and have been fascinated with his developing technique.
Here, let me show you something from the opening pages when Sgt. Vernard “Get” McGetty is at a border crossing.
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
Get said it was a vacation. “I’m going to the film festival.”
The guy said, oh yeah, and it’s not business?
Vernard said, yeah, “I’m Jamie Foxx.”
What I really like about this (and I’ll give a fuller review of the book at some point) is that, as a reader, I feel like somebody is telling me a story. The indirect quote and direct quote work together to provide a seamless stream of storytelling.
You lose yourself in the story, but never lose the story.
There’s none of the he said, he said, he asked, she said building up. Is that needed? In the opening example, most of scenic details and the “he said” tags are gone. They’re mostly ditched in John McFetridge’s SWAP dialogue, as well. How much of that does the reader need?
How much of the technique, the rules, the framing do we need to get the dialogue across? Do we need to have “The words” followed by the “he said” in each line, alternating with the “she said” tags?
In a recent PARIS REVIEW interview that’s working around the innerwebs, James Ellroy spoke of another author’s dialogue. "I tried to read a Cormac McCarthy book and thought, Why doesn’t this cocksucker use quotation marks?"
Why didn’t James Joyce or John William Corrington use quotation marks?
We all know that writers do everything they can to try to keep the reader “in the story.”
I think the scenery can get in the way of good dialogue. I’ve read writers who try to slow down the talking by throwing in weather reports. And I’ve also read writers who go back and forth with dialogue for a page or two, like some epic baseline volley in tennis. And, well, I get lost sometimes. I have to look a few lines up, figure out who said what, and then follow down slowly so that I know who the writer meant to say, “And that’s when I shot him.” Because that shooting stuff can get to be kinda important. I imagine there’s a rulebook somewhere (that we’ve lost, a la GREATEST AMERICAN HERO) that says only go so many lines of dialogue deep before you reindentify the speakers.
Is anyone else bothered by too much or too little scenery in dialogue? Too many or too few identifiers in who is saying what? Too many direct quotes and too few indirect? Are some writers just better at pacing dialogue than others? What makes good dialogue?
Good questions. And ones that really don't have a right answer.
I always point to Elmore Leonards rules of writing, but even they have built in get-out clauses that some writers can make everything work.
A great writer if dialogue was Gregory MacDonald, who wrote FLETCH. The book was almost all dialogue and very little else, yet it flowed and worked. Likewise, McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks, but his dialogue flows. So the answer seems to be go with whatever you can make work, whatever serves the story.
I find I use 'he said' and 'she said' a lot as I write, but get rid if most of them as I redraft, so maybe they're more to serve the writer than the reader.
Funny you should post this today, as I'm in the middle of writing a fairly long scene that will be, I think, almost all dialog.
I like to see (and use) attributions as often as the reader needs them to keep track of who's talking. I hate to have to do what you described, count back to see who said what. If I see too many "he said, she saids," I use some action or indirect dialog to remind the reader who is talking.
How much internal monologue, description, etc. has to depend on the pacing of the scene. I kind of want the reader to go tear-assing through the interview sequence I'm writing, so I'm paring it down to a George V. Higgins level. I'm even considering going back to the old Ed McBain thing of literally writing it up as Q & A. If it was a more introspective scene, I'd put more things in to slow the reader through the dialog. I'm trying to approximate the speed at which the actual conversation would take place.
Ellroy drives me crazy sometimes, but he's dead on about McCarthy. The quotation marks are like road maps. Not to use them at all makes me spend too much effort figuring our when something is dialog and when it isn't, which takes me right out of the story.
I'd go with your dialogue as is. I prefer the story and characters to unfold through what people do and say, rather than what they think. When I interact with people in real life this is what I get - their inner thoughts are only revealed to me by what they say and do, so why should I expect this kind of insight in fiction? My preference is for the '(s)he said' prompts to be used sparingly as a means to keep the reader on track. I know others are not so keen as I'm often asked to provide more contextual framing (it's a novel not a movie script as one person has commented). As you'll have gathered I'm on the 'lots of dialogue (and action) please' and 'not too much scenery in dialogue' side of things! As to what makes good dialogue - it has 'feel' real - slang, hesitations, trailing off, incomplete sentences, changing tack halfway through sentences, talking over each other, etc. In way too much fiction characters speak to each other in complete, formal sentences that do not overlap. How many conversations are really like that? I doubt I formally complete many sentences I start and I'm always talking across people (rude sod that I am)!
I have to admit I like a little body movement in a scene. People don't talk without moving around, lighting a cigarette, scratching their head. Although certainly a little goes a long way. In my writing group, one guy refuses to do this and I feel trapped in the dialog.
Jay -- I'll have to check out FLETCH.
Dana -- Agreed. Good dialog pushes you further into the story, I think, whereas bad dialogue kicks you right out.
Rob -- Exactly. The trick is, of course, to get the "real" feel without sounding gimmicky. I read someone recently who complained about a writer using "um" and "uh" in his dialogue. Maybe a little bit would work well?
Patti -- Aren't writing groups fun? And yeah, a little line of movement can really help 1) set the scene and 2) slow things down.
Great comments. Thanks.
Patti - fully agree. Dialogue, action (movement) and a bit of context, but the last two sparingly for me.
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