Writing Workshop Lesson 2 and Assignment 2: Dialogue
Truman Capote used it to great effect in In Cold Blood (a book every writer must read). Lillian Ross uses it efficiently and wittily in her "Talk of the Town" pieces for The New Yorker. And David Mamet has made a fine career out of using it like nobody else.
We’re talking dialogue. How people talk in stories. What they say and how they say it. Reporters often think of dialogue merely as “quotes,” using it to spike their sources’ commentary into the cold facts presented outside the quotation marks. Writerly journalists skillfully weave dialogue into a piece (as Ross does and as Joseph Mitchell was so expert at) to provide emotion, color, texture, context and authenticity.
Dialogue brings stories to life. It’s the old “show don’t tell” gambit. Don’t just tell what happens to your characters. Show it through what they say to each other. In literary nonfiction we stress the use of anecdotes throughout a piece. Let the speaker talk more than you the writer narrate. Let us hear his or her voice, instead of just yours.
The better you are at dialogue, the better writer you’ll be. It’s important to develop a writer’s ear for how people sound. We don’t speak with perfect grammar all the time. People talk funny. Kids really do say the darnedest things (thank you, Art Linkletter).
Christopher Walken says he developed his weird ... halting... vocal style as an actor by whiting out all the commas and periods in his scripts. He didn't want to be limited by somebody else's punctuation.
One of the best exercises an acting teacher in college had us student actors do was to record an hour of conversation among several people. We then had to transcribe it verbatim in script form, memorize it and act it out in groups onstage. Our performance had to sound as “real” as the tape. To prove it, the professor played the tape first and then we did the scenes. Harder than you think! All that overlapping of dialogue, all the non sequiturs. But it really gave us a valuable lesson in how to speak onstage in a relaxed, natural, conversational manner. It taught me that written dialogue didn’t have to sound literary or overly poetic. Even today, as I review plays for the Dallas Observer, I especially appreciate playwrights and actors who make me feel as if I’m overhearing their conversations instead of witnessing a performance of somebody else’s words. (And isn't this part of the reason reality TV is so popular? We viewers are in the position of eavesdropping... although those kids on Real World and Laguna Beach sure sound scripted these days.)
So often in the news media, dialogue is given the shortest of shrift. TV reporters will tell us what was said in a meeting or at a crime scene, instead of letting us see and hear the real thing. How much more compelling is footage of a witness’ testimony at a murder trial than some reporter’s rephrased version of it from the courthouse steps? (Show, don’t tell.)
Your assignment this week requires a field trip. Go to some public spot where you can eavesdrop on conversations. Starbucks (or some other overpriced java joint) is usually good, although the frappuccino machines and junk-jazz CDs can drown out voices. People waiting in lines often hold good random conversations. Waiting rooms are tops. I was in a hospital ER waiting area recently and heard this exchange between a security guard and an orderly:
Guard: How'd he get here? (indicating a quivering, sweating young man hunched over in a wheelchair)
Orderly: I think he was a dump and run.
Guard: Cold, man. Co-old.
With the proliferation of the goldurn cell phone, it is getting harder to find people talking to other people in person. If they're not hooked up to the iPod, they're talking to somebody electronically (even in public bathrooms, in the stalls, in full squat). You need to eavesdrop where you can get both sides of the convo.
Discreetly take notes of the overheard dialogue. It can be a few sentences or whole paragraphs. If you’re lucky, maybe you can piggyback on a knock-down-drag-out verbal harangue of some interest. But banal back-and-forths are fine, too.
Pay attention to the details. Not only how people use language but what they’re doing while they’re speaking. Is the lady reapplying her lip gloss while she’s berating her kids? Is the man at the bar giving an over-her-shoulder come-on to someone else while he’s hitting on the pretty young thing right in front of him?
Keep a dialogue journal this week. Get at least two or three pages of overheard conversations down on paper. They won’t be continuous conversations, just bits and bursts. Listen to kids talking to each other on the playground. Listen to the clerks on their smoke breaks behind the office.
Try to write down dialogue as accurately as you can, making additional notes about gestures, facial expressions, time and place, etc.
When you’ve got a couple of good ones, post them in comments here and we’ll all get to overhear what you overheard.
Here are a couple of sites -- Larry Swanson's and the Man Who Fell Asleep and Overheardinnewyork --- that document odd bits of overheard dialogue.
Read the work of Washington Post feature scribe Hank Stuever, who's a quirky and funny writer of real-life stories about real-life weirdness.
And just because I like it and because it's composed of nothing but the dialogue between a mother and her daughter, here is Jamaica Kincaid's Girl. Enjoy!