“How (Not) to Write Dialogue,” exclaimed, moodily, Erik Harper Klass.
I’ve been working on a flash fiction story for the past week or so—a story of two lovers. It’s coming together. I have some clever facts (e.g. if you were to lose your body’s empty cellular space, you would fit into a cube with each side the length of a human hair). I stole a wonderful analogy from somewhere (a cell is like a holy city of concentric circles, a walled fortress, with a sacred text (the cell’s DNA) enclosed at the city’s central temple). I have some cool objects (I’m into objects) (e.g. an octagonal reliquary containing a fragment of the cranium of, not a saint, but a scarabaeus). I have some history, some weird color names, a strange organism or two (scarabaeus!), the obligatory description of the light doing something (sweeping? slanting?). These are the things I like to put into my fiction.
Reading the piece again today, I noticed something: I basically had no dialogue. No more than a few words pass between these two nascent lovers. I don’t care for writing dialogue. I suspect this is because I’m not great at it. Let this be an admission: I rise uneasily, I look around the room (you are there in your circle of chairs, you fellow writers, you return my glance), the light slants, and I speak: “My name is Erik Harper Klass,” I say, my voice cracking, “and I feel inadequate in my ability to write convincing dialogue.”
By God I just wrote dialogue! And by God you see the trouble!
I’m not even sure how I like to spell the word: dialogue or dialog? The former feels stodgy, but the latter looks like it forgot to put on its shoes before going out. (Bryan Garner prefers the longer spelling (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 251)—so I guess that’s settled. Dialogue it is.)
It also occurs to me that my disinclination to write—I almost wrote speak—dialogue might stem from my marked predilection for solitude, for silence, for a good book quietly read, for comfortably communing with a pet. (It is, indeed, one of the miracles of life that I am happily married and have more than one friend.)
I interrupt myself to write a note to self: Try writing an essay about dialogue entirely in dialogue. (Probably a bad idea.) . . . End of note to self.
I have questions about dialogue: Should dialogue sound “real”? Should it be filled with accents and quirks and missing gs after our ins? (You know what I’m sayin’?—or as Christopher Hitchens once wrote: nome sane?) Should we sprinkle ellipses and em-dashes about, to mimic our own stutterings . . . our elisions . . . our hesitations . . . our silences . . . our interruptio—? How important is it to individuate our dialogue, giving each character a different voice? Should we, like, fill our dialogue with, like, the word like? (I’m so sure!) Should our dialogue be in short paragraphs (most people don’t talk in ten-page monologues)? Or is it wise to forget about these misguided (I answer my own questions) attempts at mimesis and verisimilitude? Should we make our words work not in space but on the page, where they will live their days?
A writer friend of mine, N. A. Turner (Nick), has written a great post on dialogue. He begins by reminding the reluctant dialoguer that “dialogue can move a story forward, it creates interaction with your characters and above all, conflict. Dialogue done well is better than a good narrative.” This pisses me off, but it’s probably true. Some writers—David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, William Gaddis, E. L. Doctorow come to mind—are masters of dialogue, writing whole stories or novels that are nearly—if not entirely—all conversation (no he saids, she saids). The effect can be powerful. You’re in the room with the characters (mimesis!). The author seems to disappear, becoming a sort of recording device (a book I read once called these “transcribed acoustic collages” (John Johnston, Carnival of Repetition)). I’m not sure we need to go this far with our dialogue, but perhaps it’s worth the exercise, especially if you like to experiment with form.
But how do we get dialogue right? Conceding, as I have, my own failings in the matter, I’ll offer you another link to Nick’s post. Check it out (in fact, Nick has a whole school for short story writing—I introduced myself after stumbling across this post, which I thought was the most complete and informative ten minutes anyone could spend if interested in learning about short story writing—consider this a plug).
There’s a lot more in Nick’s article. If you have your own tips or thoughts about dialogue, feel free to comment. “Thanks for reading,” said the author. “And happy writing!”
—Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.