When real-life people speak to one another, much of what they say is not very original.
Speech and dialogue represent a compromise: we draw on a large repository of phrases and cliches whose limitations muddle what we’re trying to say. Often, we settle for using the only tools we have, which have emerged from things already said.
Fiction writers tend to want to fix this on the page. We strive and stylize, aiming for punchy lines that “jump out from the page.” But in so doing, we make dialogue seem artificial, overwritten and self-conscious.
This is one of two intertwined mistakes that creep into fictional dialogue. The second, far more important, mistake is that we fail to notice or include one of the aspects of real-life dialogue that truly does bring it to life:
The fact that, in most live conversations, people are not listening. They are not understanding, and are not responding in a way that others find satisfying.
Far more than punchy lines and clever retorts, well-crafted dialogue will show people simply not listening.
But how can we demonstrate in our dialogue-writing that an act as invisible as not listening is taking place? Here are some of the characteristics of not listening that can be used dialogue scenes:
There’s a lack of mutual understanding between characters.
In conversations short or long, one simple fact is easily observed almost everywhere: beyond not listening, people often don’t understand each other. Take this short example from my recent novel, Mrs. Sinden:
[Jill] handed Aspidistra an old picture of her daughter holding Wylie, Philip Nye’s dog. “I know you liked walking him so much, and now you’ve got Bovary—”
“Bovary is dead,” said Jessica, without emotion.
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s me being me again. I’m always saying the wrong thing. I didn’t know.”
“How could you have? In any case the memory is legitimate.”
Jill caught the word, legitimate, but had no idea what Jessica Sinden meant by it. Were there illegitimate memories?
The scene takes place near the end of the novel. It might be possible to assume that by then these two characters have some rudimentary understanding of each other. But no: Jill can’t even get the basic facts about Jessica’s life straight, and she has absolutely no idea what Jessica means by “legitimate memories”—very much something Jessica would say, but which manages to bypass Jill entirely. By this point in the novel, there is a strong connection between the two women—they have a granddaughter in common—but little affinity, and no mutual understanding.
Exchanges are off-hand and unsatisfying.
Often, real-life speech is not a good or particularly articulate record of communication. Rather, it is an attempt at communication, which occurs, at best, only incompletely and at worst, results in a complete failure to communicate.
Naturally this leaves people—both fictional and real—dissatisfied. Exchanges are off-hand. They come and go quickly. Little is truly expressed or resolved.
Even if the characters do have to say something, try as they might, they can’t rise to it. They might come up with partial formulations, saying things they themselves think are insufficient, or even just plain wrong.
Dialogue that shows this dissatisfying dynamic may be a far cry from snappy prose, but it discloses character and human nature.
Stylizing isn’t needed.
In focusing on the lack of listening, there’s no need for style, because what really matters is the lack of listening and the blatant failure of communication it shows.
Moreover, much of what we say is, in fact, generic, or worse, formulaic. Most people are not original speakers. Few can fully express anything they want to say with any degree of originality. But in good dialogue, so much is expressed between the lines.
There’s an unconscious motivation that’s more important than listening.
If characters in fiction are not actually listening, just what are they doing? This is not an easy question to answer. It goes to human psychology, in which, on the main, motivation is unconscious. There is an incredible variety of unconscious motivations. To take an even shorter example from Mrs. Sinden:
“Do you actually not like it here anymore?”
“No, well, yes, I mean, still, somewhat.”
I’d often heard many people say things like this, but it took me some time to inhabit the richness of this kind of statement. Think of it: all at the same time, Mrs. Sinden is disagreeing, agreeing, expressing uncertainty, qualifying herself, and changing her mind!
What you take away here is not so much a clear thought as a clear feeling about a state of mind. And also a sense that a direct question is being sidestepped. Jessica is clearly ambivalent about staying in Hong Kong, but she doesn’t want to say why. She may not even know why herself. That she is acting out of imperatives to which she is mostly blind is exactly what makes the dialogue dramatic. The fuel of drama is characters not knowing what they or other characters are thinking (think of almost any line from King Lear). They mostly guess. Think of how little you know about someone when you meet them for the very first time; yet even here, in the face of very little knowledge and almost no real understanding, there is dialogue, though it consists of mostly guesswork.
Exchanges have both an indefinite and an infinite quality.
Writers often write dialogue that presupposes an almost legalistic clarity of intention on the part of their characters, two distinct positions that are basically argued out in prose. That is, a character becomes a witness on a stand, trying to conceal something—or even worse, a debater at a podium, trying to establish a clear position about an idea of some sort. Which may explain why so many commercial novels center upon, or culminate with a trial…
In contrast, good dialogue, though highly pressurized, is so indefinite. Part of the marvelous infiniteness of great dialogue is that the characters can’t easily decide what to conceal or what to reveal.
My favorite example of this is Chapter 57 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, an entire chapter where neither Dr. Lydgate nor his wife, Rosalind, says what they mean, though, when examined closely, it often turns out that behind it all, there is a kind of shape to what they do manage to say. Most lies are like this, too: odd admixtures of concealment and revelation arrived at situationally by the liar.
It gives us the feeling of a constant driving force.
The mind is driven by many forces, sexual and aggressive, and as Freud says, “the drives are like mythical creatures, magnificent in their indefiniteness.”
Magnificent in their indefiniteness. I can think of no better definition for the essence of good dialogue in fiction. In good dialogue, we can never be sure that we have a clear view of a character.
There should always be a sense of something just behind what a character is saying. Usually, it is a wish or a desire of some sort, but often the speaker is, at best, barely conscious of any scheme of motivation. Dialogue, rather, is pure impetus. It is evidence that a speaker is driven, though it is often very poor evidence of precisely what a speaker is driven by. As in, once again, “No, well, yes, I mean, still, somewhat.”
None of this is to say anything against good listening. It’s just that good continuous listening is very rare. In society, the art of listening is too often the art of appearing to listen while only listening intermittently. So in this way, good dialogue is actually acutely realistic; it is bad communication plausibly reported. It’s a shambles of connection because both speakers are helplessly trapped in their own vats, like Nagg and Nell in Beckett’s Endgame. They often ease out of them a little, but not much. They may not be saying what they want to say, but through it all, if you have the ear to listen, there is a palpable motion of mind that always reveals, through the tinted glass of language, not the meaning of character, but its drift.