Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing Dialogue: How People Really Talk on the Page

A friend recently sent me this wonderful article, published in the Wall Street Journal's Wordcraft column, about how people really talk on the page.  I like this column, I'm more impressed with the WSJ since it began including it to its usual lineup.  The article is short, like all of the Wordcraft essays, but gives good food for thought.

So many writers in my classes have questions about how to write dialogue.  It truly takes
skill, and in my experience it also takes years of practice.  But the most important technique I've learned for writing good dialogue is an ability to listen between the lines.

In the WSJ article, the writer makes some good points about how written dialogue differs from spoken dialogue, how people on the page are more revealed by what's not said than what is.  The writer referred to a Hemingway short story to illustrate exactly how this is done.  The story is called "Hills Like White Elephants."

I perked up, reading this, because "Hills Like White Elephants" happens to be one of my favorite Hemingway stories.  I like Hemingway's writing; I've read almost everything he wrote.  I admire his sparseness even though it's far from my own style.  But this story is really brilliant in how it reveals, through what's not being said, the intense undercurrents that pass between people in struggle

A man and a woman are sitting in a cafe in a train station somewhere in Spain.  They are having drinks and waiting.  The woman remarks that the distant hills look like white elephants.  The dialogue is somewhat inane, if you just look at it line by line, but taken as a whole it reveals this huge subject that's not being discussed, a subject that's quite profound.  The man wants the woman to have an abortion.  She is resisting, and in that resistance is the whole of their relationship.  It's actually not about anything they're discussing.  It's 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.

But the dialogue.  That's the cool thing about studying this story.  You start to see the layers peel off as the dialogue moves along.  First layer is the obvious--they are ordering drinks, the drink tastes like anise, the hills are like elephants seen faintly through the trees.  Then there's the main topic--the abortion that the man is advocating.  But it's Hemingway's brilliance that brings in the third layer, which is the real meat of this tiny story.  What's not fixable about us humans, about people's twists and turns and their basic unhappiness with what they end up with. 

We won't ever get the brilliance of Hemingway in our books, perhaps.  But we can learn a lot from studying his dialogue.

So this week, if you're wanting to build your dialogue skills, try the exercise below.  Do it more than once, if you can.  It takes lots of practice to develop the listening ear, then the writing of dialogue.  Try to first hear, then scribe, the undercurrents.  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?


  1. Dear Mary
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful insight on writing dialogues. I am an aspiring writer,but an engineer by profession. So I was looking for ways to polish my writing skills. This fortunate morning I stumbled upon your blog and I got answers to many of my questions. Thanks again for sharing such wonderful tips.

  2. Thanks, Mary. I write fan fiction and I believe dialogue is very, very important in order for any story to work well with the readers.
    Your exercise was really helpful and even though there is a distinct possibility I am banned from the arrival terminal of my home airport - for shamelessly eavesdropping, what else? - I really got what you were trying to say!
    Thanks again :)

  3. Thanks so much for visiting, Rhea! I hope your travel well went. . . :-)