By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

Pretty much the whole reason people congregate in bars or restaurants is to talk. The food and the booze are nice. But we don’t tend to go out and enjoy them by ourselves. Humans are social. Talking is a primary means of connection. A real peeve is when the acoustics of a place or the sheer number of talkers around us thwarts our talking. We’re even willing to shout ourselves hoarse, if that’s what it takes. That’s how much we like it.
Kathy Flann

And yet few things strike fear into the hearts of new fiction writers the way that dialogue does. As a professor of fiction writing, I have seen students blanche at the prospect of writing it. Lips go dry. A hollow panic develops behind the eyes. Dear God, their expressions say, where is the nearest cliff?

These students have been talking all their lives. They were probably yakking away with their friends right before class. So what gives?

The problem, I think, is that we’ve all experienced bad dialogue – either in movies or books – and we’ve witnessed for ourselves how totally it ruins a story. Bad dialogue is like an out-of-tune instrument. Because we’ve been playing this particular instrument our entire lives, we know “bad” when we hear it. Even worse, we know that everyone else will, too. There’s no faking it. Students imagine themselves on a stage in front of a huge audience, emitting the sounds of a dying duck.

To provide students an example of the squawkingly bad, I like to cite the ubiquitous Law & Order for its reliance on “info-logue.” Here’s every single episode: Two detectives in trench coats walk down a city street. One says, “Where are we headed?” The other says, “Well, we might have a suspect down here at the corner store on 5th and Elm. He’s a cashier named Donald Donovan and he’s out on parole for racketeering. He’s 5’8” and he’s missing an arm and he has a tattoo of Cher, all of which matches the victim’s description that she gave us yesterday at our precinct on Main Street.”  Wait. They didn’t discuss all of this back at the station (on Main Street)? How did they both end up in the car? Until this very moment, did one of them think that they were headed to a matinee of Shallow Hal? Dialogue like this is written to inform the reader/viewer, even though exposition would have been the less obtrusive way to convey it. It’s clunky to use dialogue this way. It takes us out of the story because it isn’t realistic. Students giggle about this example because they know exactly what I mean.

Some are so motivated to sidestep this fate that they avoid dialogue entirely, crafting whole stories that have no scenes in them. But this, of course, does not solve the problem. It just creates a different one. An otherwise promising story is flat and boring because dialogue is the life of fiction. Dialogue makes a story crackle. It makes the characters real because we know that real people talk, and we want to experience this for ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, though, dialogue is the primary vehicle for dramatizing the story’s conflict.

At its best, dialogue does more than one thing. For example, we can learn about the characters in the same way as we learn about strangers we meet – by observing them. A person who answers questions with “Yup” is perhaps developing into a distinct individual even by virtue of that one word. Dialogue is one of the fastest ways to develop character.

It also allows us to see conflict develop between the two parties. They’re trying to get something from each other; maybe this dramatized conflict is especially effective when the thing they want is not something they’ve acknowledged to one another or even to themselves. Readers love having a sense of discovery. Fiction allows us the chance to people-watch without the fear of getting caught.

Ironically, once I wax on about these notions, cajoling students into writing that dreaded dialogue, the biggest problem in their drafts is that the speech is “over-written.” In other words, the characters a) talk and talk and talk; b) cover the same ground the whole time; and c) know and show all their cards. The good news is that, with some tinkering and cutting, these stories are not hard to revise.

Each “line” of dialogue in these over-written drafts is more like a paragraph. Within these long chunks of dialogue, the character tends to say the same thing over and over. If she is mad at her neighbor for leaving trash in the yard, she doesn’t just gesture to the mess and say something like, “Dude. You’ve got to do better.” (Or actually, I kind of like “Dude” on its own or maybe “Really, Dude?”). Instead, the character explains her feelings about garbage at length and the reasons for them, including but not limited to poor community spirit and maggots. It becomes almost a public service announcement.

I understand why people have the tendency to write this long-winded dialogue. It’s similar to the way we talk to our friends in bars. It’s why bars are so loud. Blah, blah, blah, blah. We can pontificate about the culinary merits and deficiencies of crayfish, for example. Perhaps thirty minutes can be devoted to whether “tickly legs” should disqualify something as food (the answer is yes).

However, it’s important to remember that a story is a story because of conflict. And under emotional pressure, most people are not so loquacious as they are at One-Eyed Jack’s with a highball in hand and an easy audience. Most of us, faced with a difficult situation, become tongue-tied. It’s why we later think of all of the things we could have said or should have said during arguments with our bosses or neighbors. Our friends and families also help us think later of witty one-liners and reasoned arguments we could have delivered. “What you should have told him was that he’s the one who smells like Bisquick. What were you supposed to do? Not have pancakes?”

When characters deliver Shakespearean soliloquies within moments of duress, readers start to hear the quack quack of bad dialogue. It isn’t true to most people’s experience.

Under pressure or in conflict with others, we tend to rely on silence and gestures and misdirection more than words. I often say to students, “Don’t let the characters hear and understand each other perfectly.” In reality, the higher we want the emotional register of the story to be, the less well our characters will listen to each other.  Here’s a crappy sample I made up:

Steve twirled the edge of the cocktail napkin. “My parents are throwing me a birthday party, and I was wondering—”

“Where the hell is everyone?” Tammy studied her phone. Then she tried to peer over the heads of the people in the crowded bar. Everyone else from the office should have been here thirty minutes ago.

“Traffic?” He shrugged, took a swig of bourbon. His parents were not throwing him a birthday party. They didn’t even live around here. What had made him say it? Still, if she said yes, maybe he could concoct a party for himself somehow.  

The blue of the phone lit her up in the dark bar, her freckles, the pink lipstick. He tried not to imagine the way she might pucker her lips when she put it on.  Stop it, Steve.

She turned, caught him looking. “Parents hate me,” she said. “Even my own.”

In this scenario, Steve is putting pressure on this moment to turn out a certain way. Tammy isn’t aware of it. Steve isn’t getting that she isn’t getting it. The characters here are saying “yes” and “no” to each other without ever saying those things directly. Dialogue tends to have more impact when it’s economical and “asymmetrical.”

“Symmetrical” dialogue involves one person listening to the other, waiting for the other to finish, and responding to exactly what got said. (“How are you?”/ “I am fine” or “Where are we headed?” / “We’re headed to find that perp on the corner of 5th and Elm….”). It’s what happens when there’s no conflict and people are calm. If I am in a meditative state of mind when I discover my neighbor’s trash strewn all over the place for the fifth time and if my neighbor is, let’s say, Master Yoda – well, that’s a recipe for a long, patient, articulate exchange about the evils of yard trash. But two very big if’s, those are.

We can imply a bigger problem by making it very difficult for the characters to talk about it. If they hem and haw and misunderstand, the problem feels bigger. If it’s easy for them to name it and talk about it directly and thoroughly, we don’t have the same sense that it’s something they might not overcome. Steve could say, “Will you go out with me?” Tammy could respond, “No way, Numb Nuts.” I might still have a story to tell, but it would probably no longer be about Steve’s same battle with himself and with reality.

What’s more, as anyone in a long-term relationship can attest, we can’t even assume that both characters in a scene are fixated on the same problem. When I write dialogue in my own stories, I try to make each character want something different from the conversation. For example, maybe Steve wants a sign that there’s potential for a romantic relationship with Tammy and he is fishing around for this. Maybe Tammy is waiting for Suzanne to show up because she wants advice about a work problem. These agendas drive their comments and will probably make it hard for them to hear what the other is really saying. This helps the conflict, but it also just plain old realistic.

Dialogue can be action. It can move the story like nothing else. As writers, we can think of each line of dialogue as a decision a character has chosen to make. For example, each line can be viewed as a risk (revealing something), a request (asking for something, often indirectly), an assessment (trying to gauge the other person), an assertion (trying to create a certain perception of one’s self), etc. The character is taking these actions in order to navigate the story’s central conflict. There is something of substance to be lost or gained if the character doesn’t get what she wants from the conversation – or at least the character thinks so. If this isn’t the case, a writer might want to reflect on why the scene is in the story at all.

It is a lot of fun to watch students’ dialogue improve over the course of a semester. It’s even more fun when they start to see it, too. Or, I should say, start to hear it. The voices of their characters become as palpable as the voices they hear in restaurants and bars, or out on city streets. All I ask is that no one wear a trench coat.

Whatever one thinks of Ernest Hemingway, a complicated figure, his dialogue can be magnificent, perhaps most famously in the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” It’s such a brief narrative that even a rudimentary description of its plot would spoil it, but what I can say is that the story showcases his knack for asymmetrical symmetry. The two characters seem so very close to saying what they mean and hearing what the other wants. For me, it’s what creates the story’s suspense.

Here’s an excerpt from that story to play us out:

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

“Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.”

“Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.”

“It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it.”

“Would you do something for me right now?”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”



Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.

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