For me a story, whether it’s a short story, novel, or movie, is all about the people. I know some readers/viewers who “see” the picture that an author is “painting.” They love the setting, atmosphere, movement and action. And while I appreciate a good action scene, a well written description, or historical accuracy, when I read or view, it is all about the people and their relationships. Their motivations and their history are a fascinating tapestry. The way they react to their environment, the way they interact with the other characters carries the story.
When the book is well written, more than knowing the plot twists or the history or geography of the story, I feel like I know the characters. I love them, or hate them, or fear them, but I need to feel like I understand them.
So, how am I to make my characters real and vital? There isn’t just one answer, but today, I’m exploring well written dialogue.
Here’s a snippet from Georgette Heyer’s, The Grand Sophy. Sophy has made some plans. Mr. Rivenhall assumes he know better:
“. . . she yet felt that she could safely repose confidence in his ability to aid her in the purchase of carriage-horses for her own use, and said presently: ‘I must buy a carriage, and don’t know whether to choose a curricle or a high-perch phaeton. Which do you recommend, cousin?’
‘Neither,’ he replied, steadying his horses round a bend in the street.
‘Oh?’ said Sophy, rather surprised. ‘What, then?’
He glanced down at her. ‘You are not serious, are you?’
‘Not serious? Of course I am serious!’
‘If you wish to drive, I will take you in the Park one day,’ he said. ‘I expect I can find a horse–or even a pair–in the stables quiet enough for a lady to drive.’
‘Oh, I fear that would never do!’ said Sophy, shaking her head.
‘Indeed? Why not?’
‘I might excite the horse,’ said Sophie dulcetly.
He was momentarily taken aback. Then he laughed, and said: ‘I beg your pardon: I had no intention of offending you! But you cannot need a carriage in London. If you will wish to go on some particular errand you may always order one of the carriages to be sent round to the house for your use.’
‘That,’ said Sophy, ‘is very obliging of you, but will not suit me quite so well. Where does one buy carriages in London?’
‘You will scarcely drive yourself about the town in a curricle!’ he said. ‘Nor do I consider a high-perch phaeton at all a suitable vehicle for a lady. They are not easy to drive. I should not care to see any of my sisters making the attempt.’
‘You must remember to tell them so,’ said Sophy affable. ‘Do they mind what you say to them? I never had a brother myself, so I can’t know.’
‘It might have been better for you if you had, cousin!’ he said grimly.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Sophy, quite unruffled. ‘The little I have seen of brothers makes me glad that Sir Horace never burdened me with any.’ “
It goes on a little longer, but in this one interchange you can tell that, while Sophy is good natured and not cruel, she is self-aware and determined. You sense that Mr. Rivendell is uptight and sure his ideas are best. I want to read on and find out what Sophie is going to do and how it will affect poor Mr. Rivendell.
You gotta love Georgette Heyer’s delightfully charming books, filled with sparkling, clever dialogue. Her dialogue leads the reader to know her characters.
Or, from To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Well, Heck,” Atticus was saying, “I guess the thing to do–good Lord, I’m losing my memory . . .” Atticus pushed up his glasses and pressed his fingers to his eyes. “Jem’s not quite thirteen . . . no, he’s already thirteen–I can’t remember. Anyway, it’ll come before county court–“
“What will, Mr. Finch?” Mr. Tate uncrossed his legs and leaned forward.
“Of course it was a clear-cut self defense, but I’ll have to go to the office and hunt up–“
“Mr. Finch, do you think Jem killed Bob Ewell? Do you think that?”
“You heard what Scout said, there’s no doubt about it. She said Jem got up and yanked him off her–he probably got hold of Ewell’s knife somehow in the dark . . . we’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Mis-ter Finch, Hold on,” said Mr Tate. “Jem never stabbed Bob Ewell.”
Atticus was silent for a moment. He looked at Mr. Tate as if he appreciated what he said. But Atticus shook his head.
“Heck, it’s might kind of you and I know you’re doing it from that good heart of yours, but don’t start anything like that.”
Mr Tate got up and went to the edge of the porch. He spat into the shrubbery, then thrust his hands into his hip pockets and faced Atticus. “Like what?” he said.
“I’m sorry if I spoke sharply, Heck,” Atticus said simply, “but nobody’s hushing this up. I don’t live that way.”
“Nobody’s gonna hush anything up, Mr. Finch.”
Mr Tate’s voice was quiet, but his boots were planted so solidly on the porch floorboards it seems that they grew there. A curious contest, the nature of which eluded me, was developing between my father and the sheriff.
It was Atticus’s turn to get up and go to the edge of the porch. He said, “H’m,” and spat dryly into the yeard. He put his handsin his pockets and faced Mr. Tate.
“Heck, you haven’t said it, but I know what you’re thinking. Thank you for it. Jean Louise–” he turned to me. “You said Jem yanked Mr. Ewell off you?”
“Yes sir, that’s what I thought . . . I–“
“See there, Heck? Thank you from the bottom of my heart, but I don’t want my boy starting out with something like this over his head. Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open. Let the county come and bring sandwiches. I don’t want him growing up with a whisper about him. I don’t want anybody saying, ‘Jem Finch . . . his daddy paid a mint to get him out of that.’ Sooner we get this over with the better.”
“Mr. Finch,” Mr. Tate said stolidly. “Bob Ewell fell on his knife. He killed himself.”
Atticus walked to the corner of the porch. He looked at the wisteria vine. In his own way, I thought, each was as stubborn as the other. I wondered who would give in first. Atticus’s stubborness was quiet and rarely evident, but in some ways he was as set as the Cunninghams. Mr. Tate’s was unschooled and blunt, but it was equal to my father’s.
“Heck,” Atticus’s back was turned. “If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him . . . if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. I don’t want to lose him and Scout, because they’re all I’ve got.”
Well you all know how this ends, but the way that Harper Lee, through this disagreement, leads both Atticus and us to understand what actually happened under that tree is masterful. You see clearly the character of both of these men, their respect for each other, their determination to do what is right. Subtle, and powerful.
So, how do I write effective dialogue? I’ve created some rules for my own writing. Maybe you’d like to add some rules of your own.
My first rule for my dialogue: focus and purpose.
While in real life, we have all sorts of conversations that are relatively meaningless and random, as follows:
“Have you seen that documentary, Fed Up?” Tristan asks. “It’s about America’s obesity . . . what’s it called? . . . epidemic.”
“No, we haven’t seen it.”
“Well, someone has watched it,” Tristan says.
“Probably Brendan and Chalise.”
There is a lot of cross talk, and I miss some of what Tristan says, but I catch up as he says, “It goes back to when they thought exercise was bad for you.” He talks about research showing exercise is good.
“At that point, manufacturers started taking fat out of food and started putting sugar in it,” he changes focus.
Devon interrupts, “not like fruit. you’re talking added sugar?”
“Yeah, just added sugar. That’s the problem. People look at the label and get the yogurt that has less fat, but they’re eating more sugar. Even the sugar substitutes. The insulin is turning it to fat, even though it’s not sugar. It’s sugar in your body.”
(I’m transcribing this exactly as I’m hearing it in my kitchen).
This is okay in my kitchen, but no one would want to read this in a novel. I can’t count the books I’ve put down because the characters talk and talk and talk about things that have no purpose in the story line or character development. So, I find myself asking questions like these: Does this dialogue help to define my character or a relationship? Does it move the story along? Does it show the relationship or deepen it? Does is establish a backstory or provide insight into motivation? Does it set up a situation for later in the story? If not these, is it funny? Does it provide a moment of pure fun?
And if it can do more than one of these– just brilliant. For a sample, check out the first few paragraphs in The Riddlemaster of Hed, by Patricia McKillip. (You probably guessed that she is one of my favorite authors). The dialogue, mixed with the action, brilliantly introduces Morgan of Hed. By what the characters say (and do–I love this fight) to each other; you see his relationship with his siblings and his people. You learn something of his past, his dead parents, his seeking mind, and the dangerous riddle challenge he took. McKillip builds a foundation for Morgan’s later interchange with Deth in a relatively brief exchange. And it’s funny.
My second rule of dialogue: Keep it consistent with the character that I’m developing.
Here I will just air one of my pet peeves with Hollywood. In their quest for certain ratings, which often essentially means a determination to have a certain amount of swearing, they don’t bother to consider the character’s nature and characterization. A case in point is Julia Child’s husband in the movie Julie and Julia. Throughout the movie, he’s portray as a refined, smart, sensitive, supportive man. Then, toward the end of the film, it is this refined man who says that one word they always feel they have to include. It’s contrived, and it pulls you right out of the story because it isn’t right for that character. Maybe in real life, Julia Child’s husband swore all of the time, but in this movie, that wasn’t the way they had developed the character.
The dialogue of a character should be consistent/believable. So, if my character is shy, he shouldn’t be openly disclosing his innermost feelings to a passing acquaintance. If she is naive, she probably won’t be a master at innuendo. He shouldn’t say one thing on one page and turn around and then express the opposite three pages later (unless I am trying to establish that he lies).
One notable exception to this rule is Shakespeare, who often has his worst character ay the most noble, inspiring lines. But he’s Shakespeare, and it just makes you hate those villains more, so he gets a pass.
My third rule for my dialogue: fast moving and spare, beats slow and wordy almost every time.
From To the Hilt, by Dick Francis, where Alexander tries to protect his estranged wife:
I persuaded her to go as far as her drawing room and there explained the explosive dangers of the present situation.
“You’re exaggerating,” she objected.
“Well, I hope so.”
“And anyway, I’m not afraid.”
“But I am.” I said.
“Em,” I said, “if someone were standing behind you now with a knife, threatening to cut your throat if I didn’t shoot myself, and I believed it, then . . . ” I hesitated.
“Then,” I said matter-of-factly, “I would shoot myself.”
After a long pause, she said, “It won’t come to that.”
“What about my horses?”
“Your head groom must have a home number. You can phone him.”
“I don’t know, yet.”
Spare, but expressive. Effective.
I’m sure there are other considerations, rules that I’ll add as time goes by, but I’m determined to apply these three rules now because, remember, the story is all about the people.
Any other ideas about how to improve dialogue?