In some writers’ residencies, the duties of the resident writer may include appearing at local writers’ groups. In one such a group I attended, a writer read weekly from her novel-in-progress. On my first visit, she explained that the chapter she was reading introduced a pivotal plot twist where a protagonist reveals a shameful secret during a family dinner. However, it took two more weeks of reading installments until we were finally let into the secret. Meantime, the dinner went on and on. For three weeks we listened to conversations about football and weather, and numerous requests to pass around a variety of nutritional items. By the time the secret was revealed, we were so bored that we no longer cared what it was.
Before I discuss what I consider to be effective dialogue writing, I should disclose that I’m not a huge fan of dialogue in prose. One of my criteria for choosing books to read – be this fiction or creative nonfiction – is that they are not dominated by dialogue. There is something unimaginative, pedestrian about books that rely heavily on direct speech which tends to be – as in real life – flatter than reflective and descriptive prose that lets us in into characters’ inner worlds, place settings and ideas. Usually what we think is much more interesting than what we say. A summary technique is great to avoid composing tedious conversations among characters while still conveying the gist of what’s going on. The writer I referred to in the opening paragraph could do much better by writing something along these lines: ‘At the dinner table they talked of nothing but the Bulldogs and the forthcoming rain’.
This is not to say that well-written dialogue has no place in literature. Dialogue offers many advantages – it can bring characters to life and show dynamics between them, render the story more realistic, convey important information, create drama, make us laugh. However, my preference is to use it in moderation. Otherwise, the work risks becoming a mere anecdote. Overusing dialogue in both fiction and creative nonfiction runs the danger of overcommitting the work to mere facts and actions (she said this and then he said that) at the expense of the ‘why’, which is at the heart of all worthwhile literature.
‘Never be sincere — sincerity is the death of writing,’ the legendary editor Gordon Lish once said. He didn’t mean writers shouldn’t be honest, but that they should pick and choose what is worth to tell. After all, writers are not accountants – our job is to enchant. Sparsely used dialogue can be particularly effective, can hit you right in the guts. Take the story by Glynis Osborne, The Feeder, which won second prize in The Age competition in 2008. This wonderful love story between an anorexic girl and a well-intentioned young man contains little direct speech, but this is exactly why everything the characters say has a great impact. For example, in the scene where this couple meets for the first time, in a café, Osborne gives us just a few glimpses into their conversation, including the boy’s pick up line: ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been sitting here like a man on a desert island’. The poetry and sadness of this grabs me emotionally, whereas if Osborne was to include in the conversation the inevitable prosaic lines of such first encounters, such as ‘can I have your phone number?’, it would have weakened the story’s melancholy mood.
When I teach and mentor, I notice that young writers in particular tend to overuse dialogue. Based on our conversations I’ve realised that the problem is often rooted in their sources of inspiration. Many of these writers watch movies more than they read. However, even filmmakers – just like playwrights – don’t achieve their emotional impact on the viewers, nor give them aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, through dialogue alone. They use visuals and sound to complement direct speech, just as skillful writers use descriptions of places, people, actions and psychological states, and reflective passages, to create mood and depth in their work. Those novelists who, in my view, pull off using much dialogue while remaining intellectually stimulating, such as Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and my beloved Mikhail Bulgakov, balance conversational passages with substantial passages of dialogue-less prose. Additionally, while short stretches of dialogue can stand on their own, when these and other writers recount longer conversations they tend to ‘plump’ them up with descriptions of characters’ body language, the setting in which the dialogue unfolds and with the drama unfolding in characters’ minds, unbeknown to their interlocutors. Usually the disparity between what people say and think is more interesting than the verbal exchange itself, plus it contains great comic potential.
My rule of thumb in using dialogue in my own work is to ask myself – if I overheard such a conversation, would I keep eavesdropping? If the answer is no, I usually avoid it. I treat dialogue as an opportunity to bring characters to life. In this vein, I try to ensure that when they speak, they say something idiosyncratic, interesting and/or humorous, and always self-revealing. For example, in a scene from my memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ where I first meet J, a troubled man with whom I’m about to begin a troubled relationship, I skip describing initial niceties we exchange and introduce him to the reader by going straight to the heart of our conversation, where he starts revealing his bravado and brings up a topic that will become important in the relationship. I chose to use one stark phrase by J, then summarise the preceding things he’d told me, including my internal response that remains non-verbalised:
‘I can prove to you that God exists, and also that he doesn’t,’ J told me, perching uncomfortably on the couch. I could see he was trying hard to impress me. He had no idea he’d just touched on the topic I detested. At least J didn’t discriminate between theologies, occasionally visiting temples as well as synagogues. Perhaps his God, or rather Gods, was more like a relaxing hobby than a vocation, as it was in my family. Even so, I kept impatiently looking at my wristwatch.
I know that what I argued here in some ways runs counter to the prevalent advice to writers to ‘show rather than tell’. However, I think both showing and telling have their place in literature, the trick is to know when to use which. Otherwise, we risk producing tedious works like the one I was listening to in that writing residency. Alice Munro’s body of work exemplifies perfectly the balance between show and tell, and the use of dialogue in just the right amount. To my taste, at least. And what do you think?