Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Dialogue


How is Quentin Tarantino just like Curious George the monkey?

Okay, that may sound like the beginning of a joke, but it’s not.  Let’s show you the similarities…

For those of you who haven’t seen a Tarantino movie…well…they usually have tons of violence, they jump around from flashbacks to flashforwards like a drunken Dr. Who and they have tons and tons of dialogue.

When Resevoir Dogs and Pulp fiction came out, everyone out there wanted to write like Tarantino…and for good reason.  His films were popular, they were interesting and complex, and his dialogue…no one had heard anything like it before.  It was fast, it was natural, it was clever.  But in the end, there was something off about it…

Now, you probably remember reading a few Curious George books when you were much younger.  The series of stories, written by Margaret Rey and illustrated by her husband Hans Agusto Rey, are wonderful children’s books.  In them, Curious George goes from one situation to another, generally causing a lot of mayhem.  For a young child they are wonderfully entertaining.

But as an adult, you may find that you don’t enjoy the Curious George books quite so much.  After the nostalgia wears off, you find yourself frowning at the book and growing dissatisfied at how random and unconnected the events are in the stories.

Most writing books tell you to go out and listen to how people talk.  What?  Do they assume we’re all shut-ins that never interact with other people?  No!  We know how people talk.  We know how some people talk differently from others, and how everyone can change how they talk if they are in a different situation.  Telling us to go listen to people isn’t real advice because it misses the point.

The point is, as writers we often dig into our scenes with a goal in mind.  We start to work on a new chapter and we know what has to happen in it.  Maybe we have to let the reader know about a big threat that is coming, or two characters have to solve their differences.  No matter what is happening in our story, dialogue is one of our best tools for telling the reader what is coming.

And that’s part of the problem.  (Did you catch how I used the phrase “telling the reader”?  Remember that chapter?)  You see, dialogue is dangerous stuff.  Used carefully, it brings your characters to life in unique and interesting ways.  Used poorly, it will bludgeon your readers into boredom, make them skip pages and ultimately send them looking for something else to read.

Now, this problem, of going into a scene, trying to tell something specific through dialogue, actually relates to real life.  Think about it…have you ever had a conversation with someone who had something he really wanted to talk about?

You stand there, and at first it feels fine, but then you realize that you aren’t even in a conversation.  You’re just listening to a lecture, a monologue…one that goes on and on.  The fact is, there are very few situations where this feels natural.

Frankly, about the only time we put up with it in real life is when we are actually at a lecture.  Professors and experts get a bit of conversational leeway, but it wears thin quickly.  We can put up with the occasional lecture in class, but meet one of them at a party and all you want to do is run away.

When we go into a conversation, or a scene, with an agenda and are forced to listen to a monolgue, it gets awkward.  And avoiding this is where Tarantino really scores.  His dialogue scenes will spend huge amounts of time talking and talking with no agenda at all.  In his Grindhouse movie Death Proof, there is a thirty minute sit-down, talking scene where all we find out is that one character is a really good stuntwoman and she can fall off of nearly anything and land on her feet.  You can tell that he isn’t trying to shove a bunch of exposition down our throats, which is nice.

In the end, there is some really natural sounding dialogue in that scene, but it’s also torture.  Because Tarantino’s dialogue is like a Curious George book.  Each little episode of dialogue in his films may be entertaining, just like George’s latest predicament is, but none of it adds up.  None of it contributes to or builds a real story.

So, on one extreme hand, you have exposition filled monologues that give all the necessary information but are terribly boring and awkward, and on the other you have dialogue that is clever and witty, but doesn’t say anything at all.  These can both be good tools, but they can both be dangerous in the wrong hands.  How do you find the balance?  How do you write yourself out of this problem?  And what can you do besides listening to other people talk?  The answer is actually pretty simple…

Subtext…just having your characters say one thing while meaning one or more different things will make all the difference in the world.

Here’s another scenario to think of…you have a friend that has unwittingly done something really dumb, but she doesn’t know it yet.  Now, dear writers and readers, I’m going to make an assumption.  I’m going to assume that you have some tact in your face to face conversations and that you don’t take some special glee in humiliating your friends.  Instead, you go into the conversation like a decent human being and you try to hint at what happened without really saying it.  You want to give your friend clues and let her figure things out herself.  That’s using subtext and it can really save your dialogue…as well as your friendships.

We’ve all read stories without any subtext before.  In them, each character says exactly what she feels and means, all the time.  But who talks like that?  Seriously!  We lie, we evade, we skirt around issues all the time when we talk…and so should our characters.  It sounds much better.  And…there is one more big benefit to using subtext.

Remember when I asked if you remembered the chapter on showing vs. telling?  Subtext is your best pal when it comes to this.  When you use it, when you have your characters NOT say what is on their minds, or what is important, then it’s nearly impossible to fall into telling.  You are forced to use other methods and then show what is going on behind the dialogue.

How do you do this?  Let’s say you are writing a retelling of a fairy tale, but you’ve got a big twist at the end.  Don’t just come out and say it!  If your big reveal is that Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother is a werewolf, don’t use dialogue.  Don’t have her say, “I’m a werewolf!”  Please don’t.  Instead, have her skirt around the issue, hint at it maybe.  She could say to Red, “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up.”  Then, show the old lady growing some fangs have her take a chunk out of the brat!  That is using subtext to create some layers of meaning and showing the action in order to satisfy your readers.

The one caution about this approach to dialogue is to make sure that it doesn’t lead to those Tarantino tangents.  Remember, even with subtext, our character’s dialogue has to stay in orbit around the important issues in the story.  Have your characters talk around the topic instead of branching off into something unrelated.  Grandma talks about how tasty Red looks, not about Madonna’s song lyrics (and yes, that’s a Tarantino joke).

The bad news, like all bad news in this book, is that this is hard work.  Putting in hidden meanings and finding a balance between monologue and dialogue takes a lot of practice.  But the key to it is simple…push yourself.  When you get done with a scene that has a lot of dialogue in it, read it aloud.  If something sounds awkward or forced, fix it.  Never settle for dialogue that doesn’t feel right.  If there is something that has to be revealed, try to find a way to show it through action instead of blurting it out.  Try not to let characters lecture too much. And, please, make sure the dialogue doesn’t spend its time off on wild, unrelated tangents.

We should expect that level of disconnection from Curious George.  He’s a monkey.  As for Quentin Tarantino, maybe he’s actually a monkey in a really weird looking human costume, and we should expect disconnected dialogue from him too.   But from the rest of us, we have to expect more.  Connect it, but keep it subtle.  Your readers will love you because of the extra work you put in making your dialogue perfect.

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