Wrigley: Who are you looking for?
Miles Massey: Tenzing Norgay.
Wrigley: Tenzing Norgay? That’s someone she slept with?
Miles Massey: I doubt it. Tenzing Norgay was the Sherpa that helped Edmund Hillary climb Mount Everest.
Wrigley: And Marilyn knows him?
Miles Massey: No, you idiot. Not the Tenzing Norgay. Her Tenzing Norgay.
Wrigley: I’m not sure that I actually follow that.
Miles Massey: Few great accomplishments are achieved single-handedly, Wrigley. Most have their Norgays. Marilyn Rexroth is even now climbing her Everest. I wanna find her Norgay.
Wrigley: But how do you determine which of the people on here are…
Miles Massey: How do you spot a Norgay?
Miles Massey: You start with the people with the funny names.
From the movie Intolerable Cruelty,
The Coen Brothers
For professional writers, dialogue is the ultimate Mount Everest.
Rendering the conversation between two people badly can spell the difference between Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and a Looney Tunes episode.
To climb those hills properly, professional writers have their Tenzig Norgays. We call them many things: our primary readers, our mentors, our heroes, and our editors.
Today, I am going to do my Bluebird best to be your Tenzing Norgay. I am going to attempt to give you, in one post, the basic tools that you will need in order to write conversation. And I will try to convey to you the same information that I might convey if you were in one of my writing classes and your ultimate plan was to become a professional writer.
What I’m saying is, I respect what you know. I’m just here to enhance that knowledge.
Are you still with me? Okay? Okay.
IS THIS GOOD? I CAN’T TELL. IT’S GOOD, RIGHT?
How do you know the difference between good dialogue and bad?
Anyone who has ever slammed out the first few drafts of a short story asks this question.
In reality, you should be asking this question if you’re writing anything.
Newspaper stories included dialogue in the form of quotes.
Poetry can include bits of conversation. Or it can be made of a conversation. (Robert Frost was good at this trick.)
Essays feature dialogues and may even focus on a dialogue as the central theme.
Screenplays tell a story through dialogue.
You remember all of this hoo-ha, but I’m reminding you of why it is important— humans first told stories to maintain oral tradition through auditory memory.
Nothing conveys the “sound” of a story better than dialogue.
Communicating with each other was our first way of creating story.
Even as children, the first way we learn to tell stories is to listen to stories being told to us.
Dialogue is exactly that important. It is the original seed of story.
Here’s what good dialogue does:
Good dialogue enhances the flow of the story and moves it along.
Good dialogue tells you something about the character who is speaking, and something about the way that character perceives the person with whom they are conversing.
Good dialogue pops, slithers, dances, surprises, and delights without taking you out of the moment.
(Yes, yes, you do know all of this stuff.)
The thing everyone wants to know is: What is the right way to craft dialogue?
Well, this question is where writing get interesting.
It’s no so much that dialogue is in the ear of the beholder, it’s more the idea that dialogue falls into two camps.
And never the twain shall meet for supper (unless for comic effect).
YOU SAY “DIALOG,” I SAY “DIALOGUE.”
The two types of dialogue are naturalistic and stylized.
Naturalistic dialogue gives the impression that this is what you would hear on the street if it were rendered by a writer. Now, realistically, it’s not what you hear on the street. Why? Because most conversations are not that interesting, honestly. And all real conversations are longer than you think they are and full of a lot of dross. That’s why it’s called “naturalistic” dialogue, not “natural” dialogue. Most naturalistic dialogue turns up in dramas. Think Spielberg’s serious movies. Think Hemingway’s short stories, and possibly Flannery O’Connor’s short and long fiction.
What stylized dialogue does is subtly craft the same conversation but in a singular style or voice. Think of anything written by The Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers don’t attempt to make their dialogue sound like people you know or people I know. These mega-super-talented writer-director-producers use the powers of verbal repetition and timing and vocal musicality to make their story sing. In no way, though, does a Coen Brothers script sound like anyone you know having a conversation.
From here on out, we’ll divide our conversation between the two styles of dialogue as they pertain to various forms of writing — not just screenplays.
NATURALISTIC DIALOGUE IN THE WILD
To understand why you’ll never hear a truly “natural” conversation in a movie (or a documentary! Editing is writing in documentaries!), you might want to read this fantastic short post by William M. Akers.
A study is floating around right now in linguistic circles that proposes an increase in language convergence in the dialogue of popular movies.
Cracking the code of naturalistic dialogue is pretty easy. Here’s a simple exercise to try at home:
Get permission from a friend to tape record a conversation between the two of you that lasts 30 minutes or longer. Then, play it back and transcribe it word for word.
At first, the conversation will sound stilted as the two of you are aware that you are recording yourselves.
Wait for the part where you forget about the tape recorder. Writing the whole thing down will show you what a real conversation does in practice: how it moves, where the pauses are located, where meaning is dropped or lost.
The next thing you’ll want to do is print that conversation and look at the following awesome free site, which has scripts from every major movie out there and many television shows that showcase naturalistic dialogue. Stop there. We’re going to come back to this exercise in a moment.
STYLIZED DIALOGUE IS PRETTIER THAN ME
Stylized dialogue is a different beast because it doesn’t try to emulate the way people talk, if people were speaking in dialogue.
But, actual speech is never dialogue. Why? Because dialogue goes someplace. Dialogue isn’t just crammed into a story to make it pretty. Dialogue is another device that takes you from a to b to c.
A direct example: My dialogue style is extremely stylized. In fact, if you pause for a second and scan anything I wrote in the last week where a person is speaking, you’ll notice that when I write dialogue, it tends to punctuate an idea,. A favorite trick of mine is to use rhythm in conversation to heighten tension— note my mother “speaking” in yesterday’s short essay </ Fever Interlude. I also use repetition, where the same words may turn up in a different sequence, said by the same person or several people, to create a through-thread of an idea.
Writers who use stylized dialogue to fantastic effect: Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, T.S. Eliot, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Anne Carson all pop to mind in seconds. These writers are each mindblowingly poetic in style, and each comes to dialogue with a mastery that goes beyond the fundamentals.
In their hands, dialogue is no longer a tool, it’s an instrument.
And that’s the real difference between a good writer, and a great one: Good writers? Tools. Great writers? Instruments.
Watch this clip while listening for the repetition of certain nouns.
You hear that? The Coen Brothers managed to make this scene from Intolerable Cruelty not only comedic, but musical as well. That’s talent.
How do you write dialogue that masterfully?
I’ve got your answer, but boy, you better be ready for it.
RE-VISION: TO SEE AGAIN
Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted on Twitter that if you weren’t reading your work out loud, that he should take a crowbar to your head.
While I may not jokingly threaten you with a crowbar, if you aren’t reading your work out loud, as in reading it out loud as you revise it, meaning putting your work through multiple drafts where you rewrite entire chunks and chuck parts and really write like a writer does, then, frankly— a conversation about writing dialogue isn’t gonna help you do jack.
Writing is revising. Period.
And revising means, in Latin, to see again. No joke. And part of revising is reading your work out loud over and over and over, word for flipping word. Your craft will improve overnight by adding this one step of reading your work aloud as you redraft.
Here’s a two-dollar tip: If you can’t stand to read your own writing out loud, why should anyone else want to read your writing at all?
Remember the exercise I mentioned earlier about recording a conversation with friend? Here’s where the next step follows. Take that conversation and see how much of it you can cross out with a pen and still have it make sense as an a to b to c story. (Excising seventy-five percent of it sounds about right.)
See how much more “natural” your now “naturalistic” dialogue sounds? And think, that’s only a first draft?
Want to hear a master writer (a master revisionist) who uses naturalistic dialogue? Listen to this beaut: Truman Capote reads from Breakfast At Tiffany’s at the 92 St. Y in NYC (1963).
I’ve been told that many people love the movie.
I do not. Capote’s rabid, fear-inducing novel eats that insipid, spineless movie for breakfast. Because I read Capote first as a horrid, pretentious teenager, I can tell you that by the time I saw the move at twenty, I felt as though I had been mugged.
Where’s Holly Golightly the hustler and sometime prostitute? Where’s the gay upstairs neighbor who is fascinated with her, but ultimately steals her life story bit by bit because he’s a writer, and writers take everything that’s not nailed down?
Where’s the misfit cast of characters who cannot get past the magic of Golightly the hustler, even after she leaves the scene? And why is Mickey Rooney affecting a weird racist accent and a pair of plastic teeth? Plastic teeth? C’mon Rooney!
Okay. I’ll stop ranting now. If you love this movie, I’m okay with that. The costumes are great. I’ll allow that because I am a fan of Givenchy. Audrey Hepburn is a class act. But, please promise me you’ll read the book, okay? It’ll blow your socks right off.
GRAB MY HAND, WE’RE CROSSING THE FINISH LINE!
Okay, so we’ve talked about the function of dialogue. And we’ve looked at two styles of dialogue, and we’ve even allowed me to rant on about the movie version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
I have two more delish tidbits for you to sample today.
If you’ve never read Elmore Leonard’s essay on the fundamentals of writing, you are going to learn so much in the next ten minutes. You can find this touchstone on writing fundamentals in the New York Times regular feature WRITERS ON WRITING: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle
Another growing favorite of mine for grammar yummers, is Grammar Girl. Her “Quick And Dirty Tips For Better Writing” is a fantastic snapshot for functional English grammar. Here’s a little ditty you can either read or listen to at your leisure on “How to Write Dialogue.”
And to finish our ultra-long blargalargh on dialogue, let’s run headfirst into the famous “Dimitri” phone conversation from Dr. Strangelove:
All good dialogue takes you away from the story you expect, and drops you in the middle of the story that you embody.
Sellers does this so well we forget that though he’s supposed to be having a two-way conversation, he’s really the only one speaking.
Sellers is one of those rare talents who used everything he had as an instrument, even when he himself was quite a tool.
OH! HEY! Want to read more writing about writing? Our Sunday Best: Lit From Within and Our Sunday Best: Haiku You might get your pen roaring!
First photo: Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary Shaking Hands— Kete Horowhenua : Horowhenua Historical Society Inc. Second photo: Norgay and Hillary on their famous expedition by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, from a Danish site about the Tenzig Norgay Trek. Third photo: “Mt. Hood (11,225 ft.) one of America’s famous mountains, from Lost Lake, Oregon” by Underwood & Underwood. “Planning Motorcar Expedition through Asia” by Harris and Ewing. Fourth photo: John Henderson and Tenzig Norgay by Dirk Pons. Fifth photo: “W. Stanley Moss behind Vivian Fuchs, Edmund Hillary and others, Scott Base, Antarctica, 1958. Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition” by Gabriella Bullock. (All photos courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. Please check there for individual Creative Commons licenses for these photographs.