Literature has different rules than real life--obviously. Dialogue on the page has different rules than spoken dialogue. It makes sense. What we read must present high stakes, tension, and not give it all away--otherwise, why would we keep reading?
Each fall, I teach an all-day workshop in dialogue at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I divide the workshop into two parts. First we study the mechanics of dialogue--how dialogue is created, crafted, and used. When it's not used (there are real rules about this!) and when it's most effective in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction books. Second, we look at placement. Dialogue speeds up the pace. It's faster than description, for instance. But too much dialogue in a chunk creates the fast-train-ride that you may not want just then. So dialogue needs to become a conscious tool in the writer's hands.
Subtext is present in all good dialogue. It's the undercurrent, what's not being said, and it usually carries the primary emotional punch. If you "reveal" too much you don't have subtext. So "reveal" dialogue (where people really say what they mean) is reserved for special times in the scene.
When you get good at listening for subtext, you can begin to write it into your dialogue. Train yourself to eavesdrop well: at a café or a bus station or the gym or a doctor's office--often the best overheard dialogue comes from these really ordinary places.
To train yourself even more, begin to write down the dialogue you hear. Pay attention to "beats"--where people pause, interrupt, change the subject. That's usually where there's an emotional shift. Maybe the subject is getting too hot and the speaker shifts away from it abruptly. Ever have this happen in a real-life conversation? It's used a lot by novelists and memoirists to show the subtext.
Really well-crafted dialogue gives me goosebumps as a reader. Have you ever read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants?" It's one of my favorite examples of stellar dialogue. Hemingway's sparseness may not be your style, but the dialogue is brilliant. It reveals, through what's not being said, the intense undercurrents that pass between people in a struggle neither can really talk about directly.
In the story, a man and a woman are sitting in a cafe in a train station somewhere in Spain. They have drinks and wait, and the woman remarks that the distant hills look like white elephants. They talk about the heat and the train and their plans. The subject that's not being discussed, a subject that's quite profound, is that the woman is pregnant and man wants her to have an abortion. She resists. In that resistance is the whole of their relationship. So Hemingway allows us to see two levels within the story, primary through the dialogue.
The real conversation is about what can't be discussed--whether she is truly loved and whether he is seeing her beneath everything that is happening in their lives. It's a situation that speaks of profound despair, in my mind.
As you study Hemingway's dialogue in this story, see how the layers peel off as the conversation moves along. More truth is revealed. But at first, neither speaker touches the real topic. They talk about ordering drinks, how the drink tastes like anise, how the hills are like elephants seen faintly through the trees. Slowly they circle to the more important discussion--an abortion the man is advocating.
But we're not to the real emotion yet.
Hemingway holds back the "reveal" until the very last lines: the despair over what's not fixable about us humans, about people's twists and turns and their basic unhappiness with what they end up with. So good dialogue always has at least these two levels of text, the words on the page, and subtext, the undercurrent that we sense through gesture, beats (pauses), expressions, and setting (container of the story). There's the obvious level and the subtle level.
Rough-Draft to Fine-Tuned Dialogue
In early drafts of a scene, we often work with the just obvious level: text. We're still telling ourselves the story, rather than bringing in the subtle layers. The dialogue will often contain too much "revealed" information, at that early stage.
In revision, we begin to craft it. We get more subtle and we look at placement for the "reveal."
I find it's helpful during this crafting stage to find a published book or story in your genre. Turn to a page or two of dialogue that you admire. Study where the "reveal" is placed, how much subtext you perceive, what kind of beats are present and where. What's the placement of this dialogue in the overall chapter?
It helps you build your listening and writing skills, but it takes time and practice. Try it more than once, if you can.
Your dialogue will begin to explore what's not being said--and that's where the true literary conversations take place.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Find a busy place to sit for a while with your writer's notebook and take notes. Cafes are good. Or bus stations or doctor's offices or airports.
2. Eavesdrop. Take notes on how people talk. Write down all the jigs and jags of human speech.
3. Pay attention to the rhythms you're hearing, how many times people interrupt or talk around the topic or use partial sentences.
4. After an hour or so, or however much time you can spend, take what you've written and read it over. Underline the best three lines, the ones that speak about something that not's being said.
5. Using one of these, begin a freewrite for 20 minutes (no editing) for a scene from your book. Write the overheard line of dialogue at the top of your page and start adding responses until you've crafted a conversation.
6. Look it over. Decide what's not being said (the subtext). Is it a strong current under your characters' words?
If you're interested in joining me for an all-day dialogue workshop, my fall session is Friday, October 18, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Cost is $99 (discount for Loft members), and the link to register is here. We'll go through dialogue mechanics and placement in great detail and I promise you a very rewarding day.