Don’t Just Use Your Words, Part 1

Dialogue should be simple to write, shouldn’t it? After all, one character speaks, then another responds, and so on, just like in “real” life. We know how to do that, because we speak with other people every day.

But it’s not so simple, and neither are the conversations we have in “real” life.

Before examining any literary examples, let’s think a bit about how everyday people (that’s us) actually speak to each other. First, we cough up a lot of ummms, don’t we? Those wordless hesitations are never far away when we try to spit out what we mean to say (or to avoid saying). Sometimes, even often, we don’t speak grammatically. Also, we may go so far as to speak over each other, or interrupt. Occasionally we don’t even complete our sentences. These commonplace conversational features rarely make it to the literary page, where characters, if they aren’t always eloquent, are at least able to express themselves with a certain calculated clarity.

What do I mean by a “calculated” clarity? Well, in any given conversation, when someone is speaking to you, what are you doing in your patient silence?

Are you indeed listening closely, or are you only half listening, already plotting what you’re going to say in response? And when you finally get your conversational turn at bat, what do you think your partner is doing—hanging breathlessly on your every word, or are they too silently composing their own impending response?

And do you always say out loud the words you have been silently composing, or was that planning a form of revising—should I say this, you think, or that? If I say this, will my friend be insulted? If I say that, will my friend be flattered, or think I’m a nicer person? In a sense, as we’re “listening” to someone else, we’re practicing the art of fiction, revising, honing and shaping what we will say next. And your partner is doing the same thing. The “out loud” part of any conversation, on both sides, has first been thoroughly workshopped.

I would go so far as to say that in any conversation, the unspoken words far outnumber the words that eventually make the cut. Spoken words are the tip of the conversational iceberg as we present our fictional social selves.

Yet even if we remain silent, that doesn’t mean we have no words to speak. As Nobel-prize winning novelist José Saramago has observed:

“The eloquent silence, long favored by a particularly lazy kind of literature, does not exist, eloquent silences are just words that have got stuck in the throat, choked words that have been unable to escape the embrace of the glottis.”

We all can indeed be silently eloquent in such moments, as we suppress words that must be and must never be spoken.

If it comes as a surprise that any conversation—including its occasional pauses—contains mostly unspoken words, it’s because humans are too often fooled by the exterior world. We think, if we can hear or see something, then that is what mainly exists. But most of the world runs on invisible fuel, the fuel of our vast interior worlds that in turn shape the world we think we know.

That’s why, if we are sitting, say, in a booth in a diner, and we “accidentally” overhear a conversation (otherwise known as eavesdropping) in another booth, part of the thrill of that surreptitious experience is that we are not hearing the whole story. Because our ears have jumped in on the fly, we can be sure that the words we’re listening to cannot be the whole story, they’re just a hint of the couple’s long-term context. What we are listening to is rich with mystery, and those words we shouldn’t be listening to become a challenge to our curiosity. We try to fill in the blanks.

But we don’t merely listen and revise our words inside, we also observe our conversational partner. Sometimes, the words our friend may speak are at odds with their body language or their tone of voice. The director Alfred Hitchcock has offered some insight on the visual aspects of any conversation:

“One of your characters will be preoccupied with something during a dialogue scene. Their eyes can then be distracted while the other person doesn’t notice. This is a good way to pull the audience into a character’s secretive world. People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another. A conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs. The focus of a scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. Have something else going on. Resort to dialogue only when its impossible to do otherwise. In other words, we don’t have pages to fill . . . we have a rectangular screen in a movie house.”

Film is, of course, a visual narrative form, dependent on the employment of visual cues. But writers do have pages to fill, and we can employ any number of tactics in the writing of dialogue. There is no ideal form of presenting dialogue in fiction, no best way to capture a character’s outer voice on the page that will, in turn, hint at that character’s inner life. The various approaches in literature are nearly limitless, from the minimalist “Only the words spoken out loud” to the maximalist “words spoken while jockeying with the silent words of thought.” Available in-between are depictions of physical gestures and facial features that either underline what one says or contradict it. And any combination of the above. And let’s not forget about the conversations people create alone, in their own minds, or the conversation we remember from the past, or the conversations we quietly anticipate speaking in the future.

Before looking at some specific literary examples, let’s remember this: there is no such thing as a private dialogue between two people in fiction. Because there’s always someone else in the room. Two other people, actually: the author, and the reader.

The reader is always put in the position of eavesdropping (there’s that word again) on whoever is speaking in a fiction, while the author decides just how much the reader is allowed to overhear. Just the words? OK. Or perhaps also the thoughts of one of the characters? Fine. Or the words and the thoughts of both characters? Done. Each level of added access deepens the fictional world’s possibilities. There are no rules here—any author is in charge of how much the nosy reader can overhear, and how much access will be available to the silent words of any dialogue. The writer decides the boundaries, and the reader can then explore within those boundaries.

Let’s start with a particularly stripped back approach, from the story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. In the aftermath of an apparently failed marriage, a despairing man has emptied his house of its furniture and set up the various pieces in the front yard and driveway, in much the same arrangements they were in when still inside.

A young couple drives by, and, because they are in the middle of furnishing “a little apartment,” they stop at what they think is a yard sale. The young man first examines the TV, the young woman tries out the bed.

He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match into the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star.
“Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows,” she said.
“How is it?” he said.
“Try it,” she said.
He looked around. The house was dark.
“I feel funny,” he said. “Better see if anybody’s home.”
She bounced on the bed.
“Try it first,” she said.
He lay down on the bed and put the pillow under his head.
“How does it feel?” she said.
“It feels firm,” he said.
She turned on her side and put her hand to his face.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Let’s get up,” he said.
“Kiss me,” she said.
She closed her eyes. She held him.
He said, “I’ll see if anybody’s home.”

We can learn a lot about these two characters by the words they say—or rather, by the disparity of the words they say to each other. The “girl” (otherwise unnamed) bouncing on the bed, offers a kind of seduction to the more cautious Jack, who hesitantly accedes to her overtures. She ignores his discomfort until he breaks away. Though there’s little access to their thoughts, already we can see the differences between them, Jack’s reluctance contrasted with the young woman’s more daring impulses, and we can guess who cares more for the other and who cares less, and we can predict, perhaps, the course of their own future failed relationship. The pleasure of this stripped-back approach is akin to—there’s that word again—eavesdropping. If we pay attention and read between the lines, we will be rewarded.

I have to say, I prefer the approach of the English writer Henry Green. In a scene from his novel Caught, the characters Richard and Hilly are sitting together in a London pub during a lull in the World War II bombing attacks. There’s a decent chance they might end up sleeping with each other. Richard asks Hilly a not-so-innocent question, and Green, in a single, elegant sentence, seamlessly blends the truth of Hilly’s thoughts with the falsity of her response:

“Was I?” she said, remembering perfectly, “I forget.”

The moment goes by so quickly you almost don’t notice it (and is there a single person on the face of this earth who hasn’t misrepresented themselves in a similar fashion?).

Here, the reader’s eavesdropping is more intimate. With quicksilver rapidity, we can hear Hilly’s contradictory thought as well as her words, while Richard cannot. In other parts of this dialogue, we hear Richard’s words and also his thoughts, to which Hilly has no access. The pleasure here is that we know more about the two characters than they can possibly know of each other (because of course they can’t read each other’s thoughts), and this is an irresistible insider’s experience that we can never replicate in our everyday lives.

It’s easy to take this literary insider experience a step further, because in our everyday lives we often create imaginary conversations with non-present others, dialogues that we try on in anticipation of—or in substitution for—actual eventual conversations.

A good example can be found in Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. The main character, Nazneem, is having an affair that, so far, she has manged to keep secret. Yet increasingly she wants to reveal this dangerous secret to her most trusted friend, Razia. So Nazneem imagines a few approaches to this possible confession, and she envisions Razia responding not with words but with telling physical gestures.

A few times [Nazneem] had imagined conversations with Razia. She played them out, reading both parts, trying a new phrase here and there. He will never give me up. Razia tucking her feet under her bottom and leaning over to squeeze all the juice out of the story. It consumes us. It’s not something we can control. Razia shaking her shoulders; the intensity, even at this remove—enough to make her shiver. The most astonishing thing of all . . . She never knew what she would say then, but the phrase kept coming to her. With narrowed eyes and her sideways look, Razia attempted to tease it from her. The most astonishing thing of all . . .

Perhaps, with practice, Nazneem will shape this imaginary conversation so well that she might finally attempt to initiate it. Or perhaps not. How many imaginary conversations with family members or friends, on whatever subject, have we ourselves practiced, only to leave them (reluctantly or with relief) on the conversational cutting room floor, never to be spoken?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are seemingly endless variations on how dialogue can be written, and in Part 2 of this craft essay, we’ll take a look at examples that range even further beyond the basic structure of two characters simply facing each other and speaking only aloud.


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