A Conversation on Dialogue


Favorite all time film and a great example of scintillating dialogue: The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges, 1941.

On January 1, 2013, your salonniere started the new year with an engaging discussion about writing dialogue prompted by a very near and dear family member who makes writing comedy his specialty. While we waited in line to be seated for New Year’s brunch, sipping caffeine under a surprisingly strong January sun, we bantered on the following. The comedian said consistency of character is what’s important. Making sure the actions and motivations are believable and retain some constancy of character for each personality portrayed. Borges comes to mind here. From a New York Times article by Rivka Galchen “Borges on Pleasure Island,” June 17, 2010:

In “The False Problem of Ugolino,” an essay on Dante not included in “On Writing,” Borges quotes from an essay by Stevenson that makes the rather Borgesian claim that a book’s characters are only a string of words. “Blasphemous as this sounds to us,” Borges comments, “Achilles and Peer Gynt, Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote, may be reduced to it.” Borges then adds: “The powerful men who ruled the earth, as well: Alexander is one string of words, Attila another.” The great deeds of the past may become no more than words, and no more than words are necessary to summon a power as grand and enduring even as Quixote or Achilles. Think of it this way: there is a vast unwritten book that the heart reacts to, that it races and skips in response to, that it believes in.

But it’s the heart’s belief in that vast unwritten book that brought the book into existence; what appears to be exclusively a response (the heart responding to the book) is, in fact, also a conjuring (the heart inventing the book to which it so desperately wishes to respond).

In this sense, Borges string of words is a comfort. The characters’ motivations and actions have to be similar strings of words that evolve or devolve as the story progresses. Get the initial string of words down right for each character, and make sure that the sum of the words equal the same character from start to finish even as the character changes in the story.

Your salonniere added that a writer should not and cannot afford to be afraid to steal from real and everyday life. Pillage and then paste on the page. Character, place, and situation will morph in revision, so go ahead and plunder from friends, family, colleagues, and strangers. Everything is fair game. Expect some blowback, but if you use composites, you can feel safe about your own remixes. Just know that some companions and kin will still come at you with questions. Even if your Tiya Lita comes at you wondering why the character who you modeled after your boss from your first job twenty years ago sounds like her, remember writing takes a certain amount of ruthlessness. Make no apologies. Let yourself be yourself and others be themselves.

The third and dear party of our tête-à-tête noted that he’d heard an interview on the radio where a writer had said his characters had to be smarter than the author. They had to know their motivations as if their intentions were branded into their DNA. Give your characters the intelligence you wish you had. Actions are deliberate. Motivations transparent for each individual character. They have to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, why they said what they said.

What seems to sum up the conversation, the running thread throughout is a heightened consciousness on the part of the writer. One has to be highly cognitive of their feelings and experiences, yet still immersed in such a way that the transfer of emotion and experience can be deftly remixed and relayed on page with integrity. The writer may not understand her own emotions or experiences, but she damn well better apprehend her characters’. In essence, it takes a great deal of metacognition, a lot of piracy, and some great masterminding.

Your thoughts on what it takes to make good dialogue? Join the conversation at the salon.

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