Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Son chain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read. The narrative is controlled. Dialogue is chaotic.
Dialogue is not an interrogation
The most common mistake that people make when crafting dialogue is that they re-create the elements of an interview: someone asks something, someone else answers the question, but life is more evasive and slippery. People don’t always answer the questions they’re given. Sometimes, they prefer to take you on a different journey with their response, offering you a riddle or a koan. Other times, they have questions of their own. Why? Because depending on the situation, the character, and series of events, your character’s headspace will likely not be in synch with the other players in the scene.
Your characters don’t always want to play nice or by your rules. They want to say what they want to say to move the story where they think it should go. Or, they have something to say, but they don’t yet know how to form what they’re feeling or thinking into words, but they need a verbal exorcism while they’re internalizing and processing the events unfolding. As the writer, you have all the inside information, but your characters don’t, and as the story reveals itself, the way you want them to react (because you come from this place of omnipotence, of all-knowing) will differ from their perception of the reality you’ve created. Or, perhaps they want to guard their words close. Sometimes, they’re carrying on side conversations with themselves.
Let’s examine the opening scene from Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”:
I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.
He was running over the tiled floor of the operating room with a mop. “Are you still doing that?” I said.
“Jesus, there’s a lot of blood here,” he complained.
“Where?” The floor looked clean enough to me.
“What the hell were they doing in here?” he asked me.
“They were performing surgery, Georgie,” I told him.
“There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” he said, “and it all wants to get out.” He leaned his mop against a cabinet.
“What are you crying for?” I didn’t understand.
He stood still, raised both arms slowly behind his head, and tightened his ponytail. Then he grabbed the mop and started making broad random arcs with it, trembling and weeping and moving all around the place really fast. “What am I crying for?” he said. “Jesus. Wow, oh boy, perfect.”
Notice how the characters don’t provide direct answers to the questions posited. The scene demonstrates how two different people react to an event, which is intended to reveal more about them. The narrator is calm, precise, and controlled, while Georgie is emotional, introspect, off-the-reservation. You as the reader are not only witnessing the plot unfold through a scene, but you’re also learning more about how each player interprets the events around them and what that says about the kind of people they are. You could tell us in the narrative about the character, but this scene is a powerful and artful demonstration of it.
Now, examine another scene from the same story:
Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie.
“I hope you didn’t do that to him,” Nurse said.
“Me?” Georgie said. “No. He was like this.”
“My wife did it,” the man said. The blade was buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye. It was a hunting knife kind of thing.
“Who brought you in?” Nurse said.
“Nobody. I just walked down. It’s only three blocks,” the man said.
Nurse peered at him. “We’d better get you lying down.”
“Okay, I’m certainly ready for something like that,” the man said.
She peered a bit longer into his face.
“Is your other eye,” she said, “a glass eye?”
“It’s plastic, or something artificial like that,” he said.
“And you can see out of this eye?” she asked, meaning the wounded one.
“I can see. But I can’t make a fist out of my left hand because this knife is doing something to my brain.”
“My God,” Nurse said.
“I guess I’d better get the doctor,” I said.
“There you go,” Nurse agreed.
They got him lying down, and Georgie says to the patient, “Name?”
“Your face is dark. I can’t see what you’re saying.”
“Georgie,” I said.
“What are you saying, man? I can’t see.”
Nurse came over, and Georgie said to her, “His face is dark.”
She leaned over the patient. “How long ago did this happen, Terry?” she shouted down into his face.
“Just a while ago. My wife did it. I was asleep,” the patient said.
“Do you want the police?”
He thought about it and finally said, “Not unless I die.”
In this scene, people are responding directly to questions, but they’re revealing something larger about themselves (how they view the situation and place within and beyond it) than the scene in which they exist. If you can imagine a camera, the first scene exists as a wide, panning shot as you see the events as they occur and how the characters interpret them. Now, the narrative lens zooms in, and there’s a heightened level of intimacy because now you’re focused more on the participants instead of capturing the entire canvas. Now, you’re attuned to how they view their situation.
Dialogue will always reveal more about the character than narrative could because we connect with people when they have agency and speak on their terms in their own words. Some writers will balk at this, saying that characters don’t have agency — that writers have God-like control over their stories and that they’re the quintessential micromanagers, but I don’t buy into this theory. The thrill in writing for me is to architect worlds that my character devise ways to mangle or ruin. My narrative is the stage, and when I inhabit each character, I’m in their headspace, which differs from mine, so the words they say and the paths they take might veer off course.
Dialogue is not about verbal perfectionism
Some writers fall into the trap of verbal perfectionism and don’t write dialogue in the way that people speak naturally. People end sentences with propositions. They ramble. They speak in fragments. They meander and lose their train of thought and somehow find their way back or don’t. Characters use words and phrases that signal where they’re from — culturally, socially, economically, generationally — and writers who attempt to sully that end up white-washing their characters.
Let’s examine this scene from Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”:
“Can we steal?” Sugar asks very serious like she’s getting the ground rules squared away before she plays. “I beg your pardon,” say Miss Moore, and we fall out. So she leads us around the windows of the toy store and me and Sugar screamin, “This is mine, that’s mine, I gotta have that, that was made for me, I was born for that,” till Big Butt drowns us out.
“Hey, I’m goin to buy that there.”
“That there? You don’t even know what it is, stupid.”
“I do so,” he say punchin on Rosie Giraffe. “It’s a microscope.”
“Whatcha gonna do with a microscope, fool?”
“Look at things.”
“Like what, Ronald?” ask Miss Moore. And Big Butt ain’t got the first notion. So here go Miss Moore gabbing about the thousands of bacteria in a drop of water and the somethin or other in a speck of blood and the million and one living things in the air around us is invisible to the naked eye. And what she say that for? Junebug go to town on that “naked” and we rolling. Then Miss Moore ask what it cost. So we all jam into the window smudgin it up and the price tag say $300. So then she ask how long’d take for Big Butt and Junebug to save up their allowances. “Too long,” I say. “Yeh,” adds Sugar, “outgrown it by that time.” And Miss Moore say no, you never outgrow learning instruments.
Great writers know all the rules but break them when necessary, willfully, depending upon the world they create. Imagine the scene you’ve just read corrected for grammar and syntax. All the beauty, flow, and cadence would be stripped from the scene and the story Bambara tells would be on life support. You’d lose the insouciant, playful way these kids navigate a trip to the city, to a fancy store unlike they’d ever seen. A place that’s a subway ride away but might as well exist on a different continent. You hear the formal tone of Miss Moore versus the smooth, conversational speak of the children. The way they speak tells you everything you need to know about the characters, the hierarchy they create within their world, and the sharp contrast that Bambara renders so flawlessly between the warm innocence and realness of the school kids and the cold edge, richness, and artifice of the city:
“Who’d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop’s, a tube of blue for a dime, and a ball of string for eight cents? “It must have a motor and a whole lot else besides,” I say. “My sailboat cost me about fifty cents.”
Dialogue gives you the freedom to allow your character to express themselves in their own words, and there isn’t any right or wrong. Rules of grammar and syntax need not apply. The trick is being honest about how they speak, the words they use, and how they say them without bordering on caricature.
Writers are remarkable listeners. They’re in tune with the rhythm and music of language and how one chooses to adopt and use it. That’s the beauty of powerful dialogue — not an adherence to a style manual. Listen to how people speak. Recite and record your dialogue and play it back. Is it fluid? Does it resemble how people like your characters speak in life? Because what looks good on paper can wreak havoc on the ear. Our manner of speech comes naturally to us, and if there’s awkwardness in our speech or communication, there’s a reason for it. If the dialogue for a particular character is inconsistent in the pattern, tone, and tenor, there’s a reason for it. If there’s a shift in voice and tone, there’s a reason for it. If we use words and phrases that contrast with our natural way of speaking, there’s a reason for it. All of these scenarios are plausible, but the way they play out reveals more about the state of the character in the context of the story.
Every character has verbal tics, words and phrases they lean on — all of which make them unique and fully-realized in the reader’s mind. As you craft each character in a story, consider how they speak, what they say, how they say it, and when they choose the words and phrases they use. How do they speak under varying emotional circumstances? Do they stutter out their words or do their sentences become short and abrupt? Do they have one way of speaking for a particular audience that differs from their natural talk?
What you’re looking for is clarity — clarity in how a character’s dialogue shapes an aspect of their character.
Why not rewrite all of the dialogue lines from Johnson’s and Bambara’s stories using completely different characters. How would the words and tone shift? How would they convey sarcasm, wonder, awe, fear, and confusion? Compare the original to your own. The scene and events should be exactly the same, the difference lies in how your characters interpret and communicate in them.
Dialogue shouldn’t be in a co-dependent relationship with dialogue tags.
If your tag is doing the heavy lifting to convey how you feel, your dialogue isn’t strong enough to uphold and move the scene. For example:
I’m sorry to hear about the breakup, Sharon said solemnly.
Cara scrolled through the photos of her ex’s new girlfriend on Instagram. “Look at her. I bet she’s got that new car smell,” Cara said bitterly.
I prefer to use adverbs sparingly and strategically because if I have to tell you the feeling a character conveys, repeatedly, then my dialogue isn’t doing a good job on its own. Look at the two examples from Bambara and Johnson. You’re immersed in the scene and are captivated by the disparate events.
While I think the absolutism of “show, don’t tell,” is ridiculous because there are moments when a tell can be precise and powerful, I believe dialogue should hold its weight in a story, unassisted by the narrator telling you how someone thinks and feels. The adverbs in the above example are an unnecessary crutch. You can convey how Sharon and Cara navigate the breakup through what they say and the actions they make in the scene. What are they doing while they’re talking? What facial expressions do they make? Do they have facial or verbal tics that signal their emotional and psychological temperature? You can play the above scene a few different ways to demonstrate the character’s emotional stakes.
I’m sorry to hear about the breakup, Sharon said. She walked into the kitchen, opened and shut the cabinets. Poured water into a glass to then dump it into the sink. Her hands shook. Should Sharon tell Cara what she knows?
Cara scrolled through the photos of her ex’s new girlfriend on Instagram. She compared them to the photos of her and Mark. He took her replacement to the same restaurants. Posed in the same poses. It was as if she had been replaced with a younger, fresh-faced version of herself. “Look at her. I bet she’s got that new car smell,” Cara said.
I’m sorry to hear about the breakup, Sharon said. She inched closer to her friend, held Cara’s free hand in hers. Squeezed tight.
Cara scrolled through the photos of her ex’s new girlfriend on Instagram. She shook free of Sharon, turned to face the wall. Because it was fine for anyone to have seen her naked; they just coudn’t see her cry. “Look at her. I bet she’s got that new car smell,” Cara said.
I’m sorry to hear about the breakup. You guys have been together, for what, ten years? And now he’s engaged to her? After 6 weeks? Sharon said.
Cara scrolled through the photos of her ex’s new girlfriend on Instagram. “Look at her. Wearing the ruby studs he bought me. Eating at the same fucking restaurant he took me on our first date. She’s got that new car smell, while he sold me off for parts,” Cara said.
I’m sorry to hear about the breakup. You guys have been together, for what, 10 years? Sharon said.
Cara scrolled through the photos of her ex’s new girlfriend on Instagram. “Look at her, the teenager. He’s only with her because she’s got that new car smell,” Cara said.
The above examples demonstrate how you can work the narrative and dialogue to deliver emotional resonance and temperature for the scene.
There are no concrete, set-in-stone rules for writing because where’s the fun in that? However, I try to avoid shortcuts in stories, and for me adverb tags are cop-outs. I use them judiciously. And even in the moments when I want the reader to know that what the character is lying, being duplicitous or evasive, I’ll clarify further with their actions in the narrative.
I go back to what Denis Johnson said in that workshop in the summer of 2005 — how dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid.When I’m designing a scene, I think about the purpose of dialogue. What’s its role and function in the scene? Is it to give the reader clues or venture where narrative can’t go? Is it filling in plot holes or augmenting them? Is it a way for us to know the characters in a way that’s more intimate than the narrator’s point-of-view? Is it a means to distinguish characters from one another, not only establishing them as people but determining what roles they play in the story? Dialogue needs to convey information and insights into a story, the rational or emotional state of a character, or the heart of a story’s setting.
Writing is like surgery in the way it can breathe life and heart into a story through the precision of the tools we use. Our words are our scalpel, and every movement counts to the life that’s so fragile and tender in our hands.
If your characters have something to say, it needs to be something worth saying.