I’m a huge movie buff. Part of what I love about a great movie lies in the often snappy dialogue that flies between characters. When that dialogue is working best, it does multiple things- characterize, propel the story forward, serve as the tension, etc., I tend to watch these type of movies over and over. Even better, when the dialogue is so shaped that you get social commentary with the story, you get a movie like Pulp Fiction. Inhaling this movie made me want to replicate what the film did on the screen- except on the page. Though I didn’t think a writer could accomplish this.
Then I discovered Hemingway, and when I did, I felt like: does anyone else know about this guy?
I inhaled Hemingway’s complete short story collection as an undergrad. The characters were so sharply rendered, so believable, so relatable. What I appreciated most, however—in stories such as “The Three-Day Blow,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “A Clean and Well Lighted Place”—was how the dialogue carried his stories. In fact, the dialogue seemingly was the story. I could do that, I naively believed. Which is why, when most of my stories followed a template that I thought was very Hemingway-y I thought I really had something. It’s also why one of my early responses from one of my writing professors began with this statement: “Great, you’ve shown you can handle dialogue. Now write a story I would want to read.”
Great dialogue makes you feel like you are ringside for the characters’ lives. If tells you what’s going on, who these people are, what they want, how they sound, how they think. It also makes you feel like you are eavesdropping. Tall order. I understood part of this when I started writing: I wanted to populate my stories with people who sounded cool. And just as with real people, characters rendered with an eye to style over substance are pretty thin (and lack the ability to do anything in a story except direct traffic). This is why so many of my early stories failed. But it wasn’t my only problem.
Writers who also think that an author’s job is to capture a conversation exactly as it would happen are missing the point. If asked to transcribe a conversation you had with another person, the long document would be filled with boring back-and-forths that no one would want to read. Well, maybe some would. But you could win a race on a broken leg, but how often would you want that fun experience?
Good dialogue, rather, represents the spirit of conversation. Each line is like a snapshot that represents a type of thinking, a version of someone’s cadence, a summary of what a real conversation might feel like. Put this another way (and allow me to mix media): consider how sex is rendered on the screen. When you see actors/actresses having sex on screen, does it include all the awkward undressing, playfulness, finding the right position, the right place to touch, the groping in the dark until the right rhythm is found and then acted upon? Usually not—how much screen time would be devoted to this? No, what you usually see is a little build up—a little flirting, a brief exchange, clothes torn off (with no apparent consideration if a garment needs to worn again)—and they’re off (or in, depending on your perspective).
Good dialogue does this—it goes right for it, with little foreplay to get in the way. Now, foreplay, if handled well, is erotic, but it looks silly—and reads boring—if not. That means the there’s a point to the build-up: are the characters dodging the conversation they know that needs to happen? There’s no rule of thumb to know how to handle every dialogue exchange in every story. Every piece is different. If you’re not sure WHAT EACH LINE IS ACCOMPLISHING, your readers won’t either. But you may feel that a slight delay adds a little flourish. Then this is accomplishing something (in this case, a bit of style). The dialogue also has to sound good.
The best way to test if dialogue is working is to read it out loud—if you’re having trouble speaking it, your readers will have trouble reading it.
This is especially important with dialect—if your aim is to capture how someone talks (in a regional way or in a slang way), using misspellings, etc., you end up creating speech that makes the character seem stupid, not distinguishable. And if your aim is to make a character seem unintelligent, work on their ideas or word choice.
In the end, dialogue is a tool in story telling—like scene setting, use of time, etc. And as a tool, it should never be mistaken for the machine it works on, which is your story. If I had figured this out during undergrad, I may have done a better job producing a story that my professor would have remembered for what it accomplished and not where it fell short.