Dialog — Jerome Stern

Jerome Stern’s discussion of dialog in Making Shapely fiction is one of the most thorough I’ve read. He covers everything from what characters don’t say to what writers should keep in mind while making decisions about dialog. A list is probably the best way to cover it all. The imperative is mine, not Stern’s:

 Think about dialog as more than simply what characters say. Think about it too as what characters don’t say and how they don’t say it (e.g., what they’re doing with their hands, where they pause or stammer). “How characters sit or stand is as significant as their spoken sentences” (114). I learned this while reading a workshop draft of a story in which a woman tells her husband she is leaving him. Throughout, she sounds and acts like a harpy with castration tongs for talons. Then, in the middle of her shrewiest scene, her fingers tremble as she reaches for a coffee cup and her hand drops onto the table before touching it. In that gesture, I knew she was afraid, and my characterization of her changed.
 Keep the setting in the readers’ mind. The other advantage of punctuating the dialog with information about what characters are doing is that “readers continually visualize the scene” (114). From the rest of the story, my sense is that my classmate wanted readers to think of the wife as a harridan, but because his dialog contained so little information of this type, I gave the trembling fingers and faltering hand more weight than they perhaps deserved.
 Let the setting influence the dialog. An argument that takes place in a grocery store is different from one that takes place at home (114), and even the household argument changes depending on who else is present (e.g., no one, children, house guests, a friend from work).

Stern goes into the level of detail dialog can contain.
 Summary dialogue is a brief report of what was said, which suggests a much longer utterance or scene:
Yvonne told him that she wanted a divorce. (114)
this is what we do when we say, “Yeah, I told him we should just be friends, and he said he was fine with that.” Obviously, a lot more was said, but we don’t want to go into it because we don’t have the time or desire to relive the discomfort of dumping a nice person.
 Indirect dialogue is a more detailed way of reporting, which renders the feeling of what was said without directly quoting it
Yvonne said that she wanted a divorce, that he was selfish, that he always had been selfish, that he had never, ever thought of what she really wanted, not even the color of the bedroom (115).
this gives readers lots of detail about what was said and what kind of person the speaker is without slowing the action down.
 Direct dialogue is the verbatim retelling of what was said, which puts readers in the room with the characters, letting them overhear the conversation as it happens:
Yvonne said, ”I’m through. You can paint the house any damn color you please” (115).
We’re more likely to do this when we’re being dumped to show the heartlessness of the dumper.
 Intermixed dialogue is a combination of any of these within a single scene or speech, which gives the feeling of a long conversation in a few lines:
Yvonne listed his faults—too selfish, too domineering, too petty. ”And cheap too. You’re one of the cheapest big spenders I ever saw.” Yvonne unfolded some sheets of long yellow paper and read out loud what the lawyer had told her about equitable property division (115).
this example, which includes indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, and summary, is what we’re most likely to do when we add dialog to our conversations over coffee with friends.

The conventions for writing dialog are also laid out. Stern points out that these have been clearly established and that, if they’re handled correctly, readers don’t actually notice them because they are so familiar.

Generally, direct dialogue calls for one paragraph per speaker even if the speech is very short:
”Who are you?”
”Who, me?”
”Yeah, you.”
(116)
But an exchange can also be put into one paragraph. To keep the scene flowing, the quotes can be left out:
Get out of here, she said. I said, No, you go. I live here, it’s my lease. She said, Get out, go away, leave me alone. No, I said, I live here, it’s my lease. She looked at me, Go Go Go away. No, I said, this is where I live. I sat back down (116).
Regarding speech tags, the best are the simplest. “He said” is perfectly fine. It’s not intrusive, prevents confusion, and lets readers stay in the world of the story. “Variations on said, like answered, commented, added, replied, asked, queried, muttered, snarled, roared, are best used sparingly” because they stand out unnecessarily and can seem strained. The same can be said for Adverbs in speech tags, which often sound corny—“she said kittenishly, he responded sneeringly, she hissed angrily” (116-7).

About frequency, in a two-person conversation, a speech tag now and then helps readers keep track of who says what. If more than two people are talking, more speech tags are needed:

An alternative method for economically and effectively tagging speech is “to follow the line of dialogue with an action or a thought by the speaker”:
”I’m surprised you came here.” Frank jumped up from his chair.
These action tags can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a piece of dialogue, depending on the rhythm of the speech itself (117).

Finally, Stern offers advice on how to bind the dialog to the characters and make it an organic part of the story:

 Listen to what characters have to say. “When you let characters speak—and in your first drafts characters might speak a great deal—they can surprise you with what they have to say” (117-8). In subsequent drafts, their speech can be shaped with readers in mind. In other words, if the writer discovers that a character is angrier and more perceptive than planned, her utterances may be shaped to let readers make the same discovery.
 Give each character a voice that is real and believable. The best dialogue is most like real speech, with different kinds of speech for different kinds of characters. If a particular character has a particularly unusual way of talking (e.g., uses lots of clichés, Talks like a philosophy book, slips back and forth between formal and informal speech). The writer can indicate awareness of the character’s idiosyncrasy
Proget was a weird mix of garret and gutter. One minute he’d be holding forth about post-modern discontinuities and the next he’d be asking if you noticed the receptionist’s bazooms.
This awareness is useful in that it helps establish the character, letting readers note and accept the speech as a distinctive feature and part of the person (118).
 Exercise caution when writing dialogue in which political or philosophical issues are being discussed. “Readers often feel that the writer is manipulating the discussion in order to set forth certain ideas. … If the thoughts are profound, the dialogue witty, or the prose passionate, readers accept the convention and will be patient.” But packing dialog with such issues is a strategy. Without sufficient eloquence, it’s likely to collapse into tendentiousness (118-9).
 Move exposition out of the dialog. Dialogue that carries information already known to the other characters sounds false. That information can be moved into the character’s thoughts or to the narrative voice. Then the character is free to say what comes naturally (119).
 Save direct dialog for important moments, leaving other forms of rendering speech for scenes that are less significant. “When you use direct quotation you imply that what’s being said and how it’s said are important.” If characters talk on and on without saying anything significant, taking part in any dramatic action, or speaking in ways that are interesting, readers get bored with the particular scene and narrative momentum flags. An even bigger problem is that what Stern calls the “emotional landscape” of the story is also damaged: “If characters talk four pages about their omelet and four pages about their divorce, major scenes and minor scenes feel pretty much alike” (119)—something I struggle with myself.
 Render only those parts of the dialog that are important. This point is the natural corollary to the previous one. I just read a book in which every telephone conversation began and ended with the minutiae of real life: “Hello. Who’s this? … Oh, I didn’t recognize you. How’ve you been? … Is Jasmine there?” While there are times when not recognizing a particular character’s voice is telling, including this type of information in every single phone call has the same effect of giving equal weight to the important parts of the call as to the filler.
 When writing “boring, banal, and superficial” dialogue in order “to show that the characters are prigs, mindless sheep, or pretentious fools”—select “a few sharply chosen examples,” rather than pages and pages of dull writing (119).
 Use understatement for tense moments. “Arguments are most nerve-wracking when the characters imply what they feel instead of coming right out and saying it. In fact, the more intense the feelings, the more likely people are to say the opposite of what they really mean.” The tension is released once the unstated becomes stated and the effect is cathartic, so to maintain a high level of tension, keep the talk evasive, fill it with suppressed information and suggest things unsaid (119-20).
 Let the dialogue move the plot forward. A scene showing a couple squabbling over nothing can say something interesting about the characters and their relationship, but a second scene showing the same thing doesn’t do anything new (120).

Now, if there’s anything left to say on the subject of dialog, I can’t think of it.

Stern, Jerome. Making shapely Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. 114-120.

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