Dialogue is part of writing that many writers get wrong, or misunderstand. It shouldn’t.
I’ve taken three short-story writing courses and in the first one we were to write a short story that was heavy on dialogue. Most of the people taking the class, me included, were anxious about writing dialogue. So here’s what I did: I thought of a scenario where two people meet where they are forced to talk. I thought of stereotypes that are “talkers” and immediately thought of a taxi driver. And then I thought “Who is a really interesting person to put in the taxi for him to talk to?” The answer: Mammon, the god of money.
So I had a great set-up for a story; a taxi driver gets the god of money as a passenger and drives him around and they talk. I wrote it and re-wrote it and wrote some more and the dialogue was easy to write. I sold it for $200, my biggest short-story sale to date.
In one of my favorite books on writing,
1. Give the characters different scripts
By this he means that people have a different reason to be talking. Like in haggling, one person wants the price to be as low as possible while the seller wants to get as much as he can. In dialogue it is similar. A mother and a son talking where both have the same script, ie. both know that the boy did well in soccer the day before and are talking about it, would not be an interesting read. However, if they are talking where the mother is sure that the boy was out all night smoking weed, but the boy came home early and saw his mother asleep in front of the tv and went straight to bed without waking her, they have different scripts.
2. Oblique dialogue
This means that you make characters break the “rules” of normal talk. They don’t answer what they are asked or they say something unexpected. Example: John and Emma meet at a bar. She is already sitting and he enters:
John: “Hey Emma, sorry I’m late. Traffic, you know.”
Emma: “They played my song before. On the jukebox. But no one started it, I don’t know how it just started by itself.“
John: “What song?“
Emma “I used to listen to it all the time, and dance alone in my room.”
John: “Are you all right? What are you drinking?”
Emma, looks into her glass an stirs it with a cocktail stick: “It has a part in it where the saxophone gets real loud. That was always my favorite part.“
There is tension in there, and a mystery, because Emma never answers John directly but they are definitely talking to each other. If they had just talked about the traffic it would have been less interesting. The second thing achieved here is that Emma is characterized, the reader sees her and she becomes more real by reminiscing about an old song instead of talking to John.
Writing true dialogue.
In a short-story course I took at Litreactor I was again assigned dialogue, this time after more instruction, the best of which was that it is “like normal talk, only better.” meaning that you talk out all the umms and other hesitation-words and don’t have the characters telling each other things they already know. For instance, upon meeting my brother and sitting down for a drink, never would I say “You know our mother stayed at home while dad worked all those years, and that’s when she got into cake-decorating”, as happens all to often in Hollywood movies. We were then given an assignment to write a story using what we had learned, and were to write about two to three people talking, where we start in the middle of the conversation and only the minimum of description allowed.
The story below is what I gave back to the class.
Read it, and tell me what you think of the dialogue. (Best guess as to what the movie they speak of really is gets a prize.)
A Discussion at the Bar
“It couldn’t have been her,” the blond man replied.
He adjusted his suit, which looked new and a little too big for him. He looked up at his buddy and then took a sip of his beer. Budweiser, straight from the bottle.
The dark-haired man sitting next to him, clearly a more discerning drinker, with a glass of a local micro-brew that he took polite sips from, scratched his nose and shot a look at the door and then at the clock above the racks of bottles behind me. “It was Rachel,” he went on. “I’m sure. I saw them get into a car together and drive off,” he said.
“Fuck.” The blond guy’s suit seemed to be getting larger as he heard more of the story.
“It doesn’t matter. And don’t bring it up when he gets here. He is not to know that I saw them together.”
The blond man took a good swallow of his Bud and slammed the bottle down. “Hey bartender,” he said, a little louder than he had to. “Get me another Bud.”
I did as he asked.
“What were you doing in New York? I thought you didn’t like it on the other side of the bridge.”
The dark haired man took another sip of his ale, only the second since they ordered the drinks. He seemed more comfortable in his suit than the blond man, though he didn’t strike me as a guy who more suits much. Working a bar, you get to know these things. He looked up at the clock again.
“I was…” he seemed to be searching for the right word. “I just had some business there, doesn’t matter. Just don’t say anything.”
The door to the bar opened with a bang and in walked another man in a suit. The blond man waved him over.
It did not escape my attention that at this moment the dark-haired man took a generous swallow of his beer, and reached quickly into his inside pocket, like he was checking for something.
“Hey Magnus,” the newcomer said to the Bud-drinker and smiled, momentarily reminding me of a mongoose. He then turned to the more refined beer drinker.
“Anton,” the newcomer said. His eyes were a sort of gunmetal gray and he had the look of a problem customer, the ones that harass the waitresses but never tip and complain about everything.
“Glad you could make it,” Anton answered. “I was starting to doubt you were coming.”
“I’ll have a whiskey,” the newcomer said to me “one rock.”
I got him his order, and then went over to the other side of the bar. It was a slow night, with only the guys by the bar and a couple sitting at a table by the dart board. I went back to my usual spot after a while, at least there I could hear what the guys were saying; listening to them beat listening to the hum of the fridge. The new guy had taken a seat next to Magnus and was looking into his glass.
“So the…” He hesitated, darting his eyes at me and then back at the glass. “The moviewe borrowed needs to be returned. Its owner very much wants to see it again. Very much.”
“What?” Magnus said. “I’m not going back to the Belgian guy to get it back!”
At the mention of “the Belgian guy” Anton, the dark-haired, refined beer drinker, looked up at me as if he regretted my hearing this. I got a sense that he wished the discussion was taking place elsewhere.
“I was under the impression he wasn’t supposed to know we’d borrowed it; that it was something he wouldn’t miss,” Anton said.
“So was I,” the newcomer replied.
“What are you guys talking about?” Magnus asked, a slight slur entering his speech.
The newcomer focused his attention on Magnus. “The man whose movie we borrowed has asked me to return it. Not directly, but I got the message.”
“Yeah, so? Anton can go back to the Belgian. We get it back, return it, everyone’s happy. Right?”
“Right.” He said, and looked over at Anton.
“Yeah, ok,” Anton said, pushing his half-finished glass away. “I’ll go talk to the Belgian and see if he still has it, and try to get it back.”
“There,” Magnus said. “That settles it. Now,” he took a drink from his Bud, apparently in need of courage, and then turned towards the newcomer. “Is it true? Have you been seeing Rachel?”
The newcomer seemed taken aback. He then looked into his glass and swigged the ice cube around, and finished off the drink.
“Yes. She wanted my advice about something she’s working on.”
“That’s it?” Magnus asked.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Cause Rachel’s a good girl you know.”
“Indeed she is. But how did you know I was with her?”
“Well… Anton said he saw you at a restaurant in New York.”
The newcomer stopped swigging the ice cube around in the glass.
Anton seemed to tense up, and then bolted away from the bar and ran for the door. A second later his arms beat the air and he fell down in a heap on the floor.
I hadn’t even realized that the newcomer had pulled his gun out. I looked at the tendril of smoke streaming from the muzzle and then at his face.
“I really wish you hadn’t seen that,” he said, and turned the gun towards me.