Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dialogue - Not Just People Talking

A recent post on the QueryTracker.net blog got me thinking about dialogue's many roles. It develops character, imparts information, enlivens the prose, changes the pace after a stretch of narrative, heightens tension, and helps set the story in a certain era, region, socioeconomic group and culture. You can even set up the book's theme with some well-crafted dialogue. In Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, all we know after five pages of listening to protagonist Inman is that he's recovering from combat wounds in an Army hospital. The he meets a blind man selling boiled peanuts on the hospital grounds and asks him who put out his eyes. The blind man says he was born that way.

-Why did you never have any? Inman said.
-Just happened that way.
-Well, Inman said. You're mighty calm. Especially for a man that most would say has taken the little end of the horn all his life.
The blind man said, It might have been worse had I ever been given a glimpse of the world and then lost it.
-Maybe, Inman said. Though what would you pay right now to have your eyeballs back for ten minutes? Plenty, I bet.
The man studied on the question. He worked his tongue around the corner of his mouth. He said, I'd not give an Indian-head cent. I fear it might turn me hateful.
-It's done it to me, Inman said. There's plenty I wish I'd never seen.
-That's not the way I meant it. You said ten minutes. It's having a thing and the loss I'm talking about.

Many readers complained bitterly about Inman being killed off at the end of the book, just as he'd realized the love of his life. But here on pages 5-6, Frazier showed us what was coming.

More than the roles listed above, dialogue embues the story with a certain flavor and authenticity. Elmore Leonard is a master at using a few lines of dialogue to convey the essence of a penitentiary, of military life, of wise guys, of Hollywood, of the ranch, or of a retirement community. In A Painted House, John Grisham shows us a rough-and-tumble family of hill people working on a Depression-era farm, when Deputy Stick investigates the death of a local ruffian.

"Three?" Stick repeated in disbelief. The entire gathering seemed to freeze.

Pappy seized the moment. "Three against one, and there's no way you can take him in for murder. No jury in this county'll ever convict if it's three against one."

For a moment Stick seemed to agree, but he wasn't about to concede. "That's if he's telling the truth. He'll need witnesses, and right now they're few and far between." Stick turned to face Hank again and said, "Who were the three?"

"I didn't ask their names, sir," Hank said with perfect sarcasm. "We didn't have a chance to say howdy. Three against one takes up a lotta time, especially if you're the one."

Everyday conversation, though, is nothing like dialogue in fiction. Listen to people talking on the street, and you'll notice how much is aimless, uninteresting and lacking tension. Conversation is littered with ahs and ums, stutters, false starts, cliches, pointless anecdontes, in-jokes indecipherable to outsiders, and stories that start nowhere and trail off into nothing. Good fictional dialogue might include any of the above in order to establish character, but is generally tightly written, with each participant guided by her goals in that particular scene - preferably conflicting goals, unknown to the other characters. Better yet if each character's goals are mutually exclusive, so one person achieving his goal means another's is denied.

Good dialogue in fiction is tight and lively - reality with all the boring stuff cut out. In this example from Robert B. Parker's Perish Twice, private detective Sunny Randall is trying to get some help from a married detective who has cheating in mind. Sunny speaks first.

Anybody issue him a permit?
We haven't.
But somebody might have.
It's something that could be ascertained.
"Ascertained"? Wow, Sunny. You're some talker.
But it could be, I said.
Sure, eventually.
Could you look into that?
Larkin grinned at me.
You ever think how blond our kids would be if we mated? he said.
All the time, I said. See what you can find out for me about the gun.
Will it improve our chances of mating?
Won't hurt them, I said. I nodded at the picture on his desk. They might.
Larkin looked at the picture and smiled.
Yeah, he said. They always do.

Dialogue in fiction mimics reality. It has a conversational tone, and often aspires to the breathless give-and-take of a tennis match. It's often full of slang, profanity, sentence fragments and poor grammar. And good dialogue has a music of its own, plus a succer punch waiting around the corner. Take these co-workers feeling each other out in T.L. Hines' The Unseen:

She put one of her sneakered feet up against the wall behind her, picked a fleck of tobacco off her tongue. "So where do you live, at least?"

"Staying in a place over by Howard University."

Another laugh.

"What?" he asked.

"Howard U-ni-ver-si-ty. How's a white boy like you end up in the District, working for cash under the counter at the Blue Bell, and staying at a place filled with black folks?"

He puffed on his own cigarette, looking down at the ground. "You mean I'm not black?" he asked.

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