Friday, December 11, 2009

Captured Here In My Quotation Marks

By Kevin Guilfoile

Yesterday, our six-year-old neighbor Norah came over to play with my five-year-old son. We were all in the basement. The kids were on the floor playing with Legos and a toy castle. I was sitting in a chair reading. And then, almost to the room, not even like she was specifically talking to Max or to me, Norah says:

"I've been watching the news. People are worried about germs."

And I thought to myself not that this was an interesting thing for a six-year-old to say, or that it was odd, or precocious. I thought:

Man, what a great piece of dialogue.

Composing dialogue is one of those challenges of writing that I suspect some novelists really sweat over and others don't give much thought to it at all. But if you get a handful of good writers in a room and bring the subject up, you're almost sure to get an interesting conversation. What the conversation probably won't be, however, is good dialogue.

Because writing good dialogue isn't really about writing the way people speak. If you've ever read a transcript of a wiretap, for instance, you know that when people actually speak in conversation it comes out as a total mess. There are way too many ums and uhs and tangents. People interrupt each other at exactly the wrong moments. And people, especially adult people, rarely say exactly what they mean. Conversation is loaded with agendas. I'd bet 70% of everything that comes out of a typical grown-up's mouth is intended to either deceive or impress another person, which, for a novelist, is probably either unhelpful or irrelevant, unless the specific point of the scene is that this character is either deceitful or impressive.

So the goal in writing good dialogue is to make your characters speak efficiently in order to advance character and plot, and do it in a stylized way that is believable in the context of the story. Writing good dialogue isn't about writing words real people would actually speak, it's about convincing the reader that people actually speak this way when they really don't.

We always use David Mamet as an example because he writes this hyper-stylized dialogue that is immediately recognizable. I realize Mamet isn't to everyone's taste, but for me his genius is creating these worlds of heightened tension in which his weird and funny dialogue is completely believable. Here's a section from American Buffalo:

TEACH: You want to know about a safe?

DON: Yes.

TEACH: What you do, a find the combination.

DON: Where he wrote it down.


DON: What if he didn't write it down?

TEACH: He wrote it down. He's gotta write it down. What happens if he forgets it?

DON: What happens if he doesn't forget it?

TEACH: He's gotta forget it, Don. Human nature. The point being, even if he doesn't forget it, why does he not forget it?

DON: Why?

TEACH: Cause he's got it wrote down. [Pause] That's why he writes it down. [Pause] Huh? Not because he's some fucking turkey can't even remember the combination to his own safe...but only in the event that (God forbid) he somehow forgets it...he's got it wrote down. [Pause] This is common sense. [Pause] What's the good keep the stuff in the safe every time he wants to get at it he's got to write away to the manufacturer?

DON: Where does he write it?

TEACH: What difference? Here...We go in, I find the combination fifteen minutes tops. [Pause] There are only so many places it could be. Man is a creature of habits. Man does not change his habits overnight. This is not like him. And if he does, he has a very good reason. Look, Don: You want to remember something, you write it down. Where do you put it?

DON: In my wallet.

TEACH: Exactly! [Pause] Okay?

DON: What if he didn't write it down?

I could go on for a long time about why I think that's brilliant, but the point is in that entire conversation there aren't three words in a row that any real person would actually say. Somehow, it's totally believable. (Also real people don't pause that much when they speak, for fear that someone else will start talking.)

Other writers of good dialogue are usually more subtle about it. So effortless, in fact, that examples aren't easy to come by. I can tell you I think Charlie Huston writes great dialogue, but I'm not sure if I took a passage out of context it would have the same impact. For novelists, good dialogue usually has a cumulative effect.

Which is why my antennae went up when I heard Norah say that yesterday. I've been watching the news. People are worried about germs. It sounds like the beginning of a Margaret Atwood or a Ray Bradbury story or something.

A story I would keep reading.

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Libby Hellmann said...

Don't forget Elmore Leonard, who, in my book, is a master of dialogue.

Sara Paretsky said...

Or Don DeLillo. Norah's statement sounded as though she were reading from White Noise!

Dana King said...

I'm a Mamet fan; I loved that example.

George V. Higgins may write the best dialog of that type ever.

Dana King said...

I should have said "may have written," Higgins being dead and all.

Brian Els said...

Norah's dialogue was more believable than Mamet's, I thought. The rhythm with which he wrote that bit you copied was so intensely mannered that he needed to insert the "Pauses" to give readers a break.
Norah, on the other hand, is a natural, much closer to human speech and so easier on readers.

Mike Dennis said...

Perhaps there are novels thrashing around in Norah's young mind, disparate elements falling together and congealing the way the first life did on earth following the big bang. When she gets to be about eight, someone should ask her if she ever has the urge to write any of her thoughts down.

Brian Els said...

Mamet's words, as reproduced here, sound nervous and uptight,
dice rattled in a metal cup;
it's hard to get past that sound
and suspend my disbelief.
Norah's words, as I wrote, sound natural...and sweet. A human sound.
Read the two passages out loud
and see how they sound.
You don't have to extrapolate abstractions from Norah's words
to do that.