I don’t know how many of my blog readers are familiar with Joan Rivers—possibly not that many—but there was a time when the catchphrase Can we talk? was known to just about every adult in America. Joan may be gone, but it seems like people are talking more than ever. All talk, all the time, everywhere you go.
I’ve always been a bit of a talker myself. I get that from my mother. Growing up in our house, Mom sat at the kitchen table with us three guys, my father, my older brother and me. Dad was extremely quiet, and my brother took after him somewhat in that respect.
As the youngest in the family, I sat there at the table listening to my mother’s endless monologues about the cute kids she taught at school. I can’t help thinking there was a moment when I looked from my father to my brother and thought, “Aren’t either of you going to do anything about this?”
And when the answer turned out to be No, I started talking. If I didn’t, she would. So I became the second most talkative member of my immediate family.
An Ear For Dialogue
I first learned I had something of an ear for dialogue while still in high school. When my friends responded well to a little short fiction I’d written, I was hooked. Looking back, those first stories were actually pretty terrible, but they were still decent first efforts. What stands out most: the dialogue.
In college and grad school, I learned that I had to take my professors’ praise with a healthy grain of salt. They were impressed with my writing skills, and gave me good grades, but they didn’t have to write for a living. A professional writer-in-residence came along, and this guy was one cool dude. He hung out with us students, we got him high, and all was well with the world, as far as I was concerned. The one thing I remember him saying was that I had an “ear for dialogue.” That stuck with me.
Examples From Novels
Looking back now at some of the work I’ve done in my life, I can find examples of dialogue that still pleases me in its economy and how the characters can be easily differentiated from each other. For example:
“Now you just shut up and listen to me —”
“What?” His eyes blazed. “What?”
“I said shut up and —”
He seized her arm and she dropped the pan, paralyzed, his grip like some steely claw digging into her soft flesh.
“Nobody, Louise—nobody—tells me to shut up. Okay?” His teeth clenched, sweat trickled down his forehead.
“Let go of my arm, you bastard.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Let go, you —” She tried to hit him.
“Nobody!” he screamed, flinging her back. [From Brothers’ Hand.]
“Of course, in Americar, one meets so many women… but I’ve found almost all of them—the good-looking ones, anyway—are frightfully ordinary. And they’re almost always paired off with some bloody swaggering Cro-Magnon man who’s got all the tact and delicacy of a Mongolian idiot.” [From Miles of Files.]
Someone had recently asked how old his kids were and, without thinking, he’d replied, “About three and a half marriages.” [From Miles of Files.]
The example from Brothers’ Hand shows unbearable tension and even violence between a parent and child, but above all, the dialogue shows a clear difference between who’s speaking, without a lot of he said/she said attributions. I’m proud of how that came out.
The samples from Miles of Files are much different: they demonstrate a grim humor, and both make their characters (the British Graham and the American Mac, respectively) look pretty bad. A lot of this stuff happens organically for me, and requires little rewrite. It just flows.
So there you have it—a bit about dialogue from an author who’s always found creating it to be one of the least difficult aspects of writing a novel. Can we talk?