Poets & Writer’s July/August 2009 issue features a timeless concern for most writers, the sticky area of dialogue, and Benjamin Percy provides a few golden pointers in his article “The Geometry of Dialogue: How to Maintain Momentum in Fiction.” He asserts, “…dialogue generally distinguishes itself as pure, unfiltered, straight from the source, without a narrator to manipulate.” Percy is dead on. Dialogue should simply let the characters speak for themselves, yet, and this is a big yet, as Stephen Elliott writes on a recent The Rumpus blog post, “Why I Write,” “Tom Kealey and John L’Heureux showed me how to write dialogue. ‘Dialogue is something characters do to one another,” L’Heureux said.'” Motivation is the knife concealed under the dining table and the gun pointed at the other character behind the desk as the conversation ensues. Dialogue should work as a weapon. Each character wants something from the other, and the reader should be able to see this, physically in each character’s actions and interactions. We should feel the threat of each desire, spoken and unspoken, palpitate off the page.
Percy goes onto explain:
The outcome of the conversation (Character A wants to reveal her feelings to Character B, for example) is almost never enough. To make the audience want to push forward, to wonder what happens next, there needs to be something else at work. The lower-order goal will serve that function, providing a healthy dose of momentum…The lower order goal will also–if you’re good, serve as metaphoric backdrop and enhance characterization.
Scenes of dialogue need to pack forceful punches. They should catapult the story into a mess of conflicted desires. We want to capture the heart and soul of the character, but we want them to be antsy. Static and flat dialogue kill a story, dead in the water. Our characters, if vividly drawn, won’t want to sit still for a photographic moment. They’ll want to be on their feet, afraid to reveal too much, paranoid of what truth they might find out about themselves if they speak too long. With dialogue, get in, get out, and stay armed, weapons at the ready. Each word is pointed dagger. Every pause of silence means the finger could slip, the trigger might be pulled.
The marinated mushrooms came, and the bruschetta.
‘I’m sorry, I just have to ask this,’ I said. “They say you’re a heartbreaker. That you go to the restroom in restaurants and climb out the window. That you abandon the women you date.’
‘Is it true that you shimmy out the window? Climb out the window at restaurants?’
He coughed. ‘I get bored easily,’ he said. ‘That’s true.’
He spent the time between the appetizers and the entrees talking about how his one true wish, now he was older, was to live on Capri.
‘I’d have eight women,’ he said. ‘I think that’s just about right. You could be the head of all of them. Keep them in line. You seem pretty organized.’
‘Do the laundry and cooking?’ I asked.
‘Make them do it! You’re a nice woman. Put together. I like that, especially at our age.’
See’s dialogue demonstrates that talky scenes are not supposed to be moments of simulated reality. This is your chance for your characters to literally freak out and strut their wild streaks right off the page. All their weird eccentricities should be dancing with words. Dialogue should theoretically be easy if you know your characters inside and out. They should be tripping over themselves, ready to strangle the other, as they each chase an impossible goal. So before diving into speech, figure out what each character wants from the other. Their desire is a loaded weapon, safety off. Give them an action-oriented setting, whether they’re jogging together for a late morning run or making coffee in the office kitchen, while the other fiddles with the snack machine. Understand that each is coming from left field, they should surprise the reader and you with what flies out of their mouths. Their desires should clash, and sparks should fly. Let them say as little as possible, each word whittled down to verbs and nouns. Their dialogue push their motivation just a little bit more off the edge.