Listen to a conversation. It might be a chat you have with someone, or you might sit in a cafe and overhear a nearby discussion. While you’re listening to the conversation flow, ask yourself; is this how I write my dialogue?
Nothing in a written passage adds to a story as much as dialogue. Our characters can be defined, emotions built, arguments won and lost, hopes dashed or dreams fulfilled, all through a single conversation between two characters. But, what makes dialogue work? What do we need to keep in mind when building a scene in dialogue? And how do we measure the appropriate length of a passage of dialogue?
I thought the best way to analyze this was to dissect a dialogue from The Road Out. This particular conversation sets the scene for the decision that changes the family’s life. In one conversation, much is brought to light. This is a pivotal scene, so it had quite some time spent on it.
Arthur and Therese are on the front steps of their house, on the evening of their return from their week’s stay at Highfields.
Therese leaned back in his arms, “What are we doing here Artie?”
“Well, I’m thinking about how empty my beer is.” He held up his drained bottle.
She giggled and gave him a playful punch on the arm. “No, you big dolt, I mean what are we doing here.”
He sighed as he watched Mrs Thompson from number twenty-nine walk past with her dogs. Funny old stick always walked her dogs after dark, they had no idea why. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “But I’m doing what I’m told, I guess.” He couldn’t believe he’d said it, but it was true.
Therese replied, “Arthur, you’re a thirty year old man with a wife and two kids, what right has your father got to tell you how to live your life?”
Arthur grimaced. There was the heart of the problem. The one person he avoided mentioning for as long as possible. “You need to ask him that, love.” Even as he said it, he chided himself, you idiot.
Therese sat upright, drawing away from him. “You idiot! Why would I ask him? I didn’t marry him, I married you!”
He put the bottle down. “Easy, love.”
She shook her head. “Artie, how can you just accept such a…a ludicrous situation?”
He held up his hands. “Okay, okay, you’re right, I should be doing what you want, not what he wants.” He mentally kicked himself. Nice one Reagan, you half-wit, that’s torn it.
Therese rounded on him. “I don’t want you to do what I want, you fool, I want you to do what you want!”
He bowed his head. “You’re right; I know…I know you’re right.” He kicked his feet and wished they weren’t having this conversation at all. He looked back up at his beautiful, but now very angry, wife. I don’t deserve her, he thought, I know I don’t. He couldn’t meet her gaze. He put his eyes back on his feet.
“I’m a coward. I’ve always been a coward.” He whispered.
His wife grabbed him by the shoulders. “Arthur, look at me.”
It took him some effort to meet her gaze.
“You are not a coward, Arthur Reagan, not really. Your father is the coward. He’s a bully, and all bullies are cowards. He brought you up to fear him. The ranting, the beatings, he’s even hit your Mum.”
The mention of those times brought the whole thing washing over him: the blazing eyes, the savage voice, the feel of spittle on his face… the screaming, the neighbors at the door, and that one time, even the police. It was the fear of his dad’s rage that kept him silent, the terror of raising that ire. Arthur learned to comply, to go along with what was directed from above. Disagreement was rebellion and, in the Reagan house, rebellions were mercilessly crushed.
He felt Therese watching him as he sat there staring at his feet. He knew the fear in his eyes was making her angry. Not at him, but at his fool of a father.
She took hold of his hands. “What Tom has offered us is unbelievable, Artie, but it’s true. It’s way bigger than anything we ever dreamed of, but it’s there. It’s ours for the taking. Are you honestly telling me you’re going to let this slip away?”
He shook his head, “No babe, of course not, it’s way more than I ever hoped for.”
She held out her hands. “Then what’s the problem? What are we debating?”
Arthur shivered, “I know we should go, darl, really I do. But it’s gonna cost me big time. Dad hates Tom, we both know that. He’s going to lose it over this, you know that, right?”
Therese folded her arms and scowled, “Your dad will do what he always does, Artie. He’ll throw a tantrum, and then he’ll sulk.”
He nodded and looked away. She’s right, he thought. I can’t argue with that. “I…I need some time, Therese, please. I have to sort this out and get it right in my head.”
She nodded, but said nothing. He was dead tired, he’d almost forgotten he did a six hour drive this morning. He took her hand, “Come on, let’s get the dishes done and get to bed. I’m whacked and I have to go to work tomorrow.”
In the original draft, that conversation contained a much larger percentage of narrative and thought than actual speech. Along with that, as Rob pointed out when he first read it, the qualities of both Arthur and Therese were lacking in depth. It was only much later in the original manuscript that Arthur’s abusive father came to light. Only then could I build his insecurity, lack of confidence and fear.
Due to input from my female beta readers, I knew that Therese required a stronger personality, a touch of determination and a frustration with Arthur’s subjugation to his Dad. After working with this passage, her personality emerged much stronger, and she proves instrumental in making the move happen.
Looking back at that section now, a couple of things stick out to me. For one, there are too many action beats; too much nodding, folding of arms, etc. It starts to get annoying to the reader, and the problem with actions is that they occur at the same time as speech, but we can’t properly portray that. I would lose some of those beats now. I think it would improve the rhythm and flow of the conversation.
I do like the way the small pieces of narrative and thought have folded themselves into the dialogue, the transition doesn’t jar too much. It helps to set the scene to see the old lady walking her dogs in the dark, the bottle, and, a bit later on, Arthur’s memories of his father’s temper.
One thing to make dialogue work is to capture how emotions dictate the direction. Emotional exchanges like this one involve a complex array of feelings. For example; Therese gets angry to begin with, but Arthur’s acknowledgement of his fear spins her heart 180 degrees and she sees his fear, which softens her approach. She’s still angry, but her anger is deflected to the source of Arthur’s fear; his Dad. This is often how heated exchanges go, as both characters realize things and adjust their feelings and words accordingly.
To get dialogue really working, remember that we are all imperfect people, and we go through an exchange like this discovering our own faults as much as getting the other person to see theirs. We then react, either automatically correcting our erroneous thoughts or allowing our temper to push on regardless, thus dictating the direction and intensity of the debate. So keep in mind the character’s personality. A hot tempered person is not going to change course much; once they’re fired up, they aren’t backing down. If we want the conversation to go that way, our character needs to be a hot-head.
Measuring the length of a scene in dialogue is also very important. As writers, our character’s conversations have a target to get to, in as little time as possible. We have a plot outline we want to follow, and every conversational exchange is assisting us to reach that goal. Forcefully steering a conversation, however, can result in problems. We must imagine our characters as real people; complex, faulted, holding certain fears and prejudices in their hearts. In reworking the passage above, I tried to let Arthur and Therese speak as if they were real people; Arthur the son of an abusive father, Therese a strong-willed and determined woman frustrated by an ultra-conservative and prejudiced society.
I tried to get them to reach the point where they’d run out of steam in the right time frame. It was the evening, they were tired, and they wound it up in a timely manner. Their fatigue was important, too; tired people will often open up simply because they lack both the energy and focus to remain guarded.
Originally, that conversation took place in the car on the way home, but the fact that they were in the car meant a conclusion was hard to reach; I couldn’t get them to conclude as they arrived home because they would surely talk about it earlier. It would have been much too long. In the end I started a brief conversation in the car, but kept it vague.
Keep in mind that we are trying to portray real people. Their conversations are a vital piece in the puzzle of who they really are. Let them speak for themselves, in keeping with their background, their situation, and their age. Our readers then become emotionally involved, wanting to see the hero win the day for more reasons than just to conclude a story in a satisfactory fashion.
My favorite trick is to wait until I’m around a group of people talking and then pick the most interesting person out. Try to listen to them in conversation, either talking to them directly, or eavesdropping, if it’s acceptable to do so. Then try to build a character from them. How old? Married, single or divorced? Ethnicity? Religion? Political leanings? Occupation? Build a background story. Then a continuing story that could feature them. As you keep listening, see how often they break your fictional character’s mold.
Obviously, time and place are important, otherwise you could end up getting your face slapped, or worse. It is interesting to see how long you can keep a person in character, though. Doing this, along with observing how real conversation works, can help us to build dialogue that both entertains and progresses the plot. Doing both at once is essential, after all.