Dialogue in the Deep End

Eastern Europe has been my home for the past four months, and in some ways, it’s like living inside the Spanish channel—only, without the Spanish.

“Dialogue,” says Sol Stein, “contrary to popular view, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.”

I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice “inventing” this summer. In America, our ears take in thousands of conversations… the men arguing at the crosswalk, the mothers yelling at their children, the hawkers and beggars and catcalls.

But when the audio skips, and the Tower of Babel looms overhead, you find your mind composing dialogue nonstop. Suddenly, you must speculate, catch a tone, a gesture, and build an entirely new world of chatter to match the action taking place around you.

Most of the time, the scripts I imagine are much shorter than someone’s actual speech: “In ‘real life’ everything is diluted; in the novel everything is condensed,” says Elizabeth Bowen.

My inventions also deviate quite a bit from their original sources. “Your first instinct may be to present realistic dialogue or action for the sake of mimicking real life accurately. But art does far more than mimic life. It mimics and also transcends it, casts it in some new light so that we may comprehend its meaning. For the fiction writer, this means creating artificial dialogue—artificial in the best sense of artifice, a created thing of beauty.” (Philip Gerard)

“What must novel dialogue . . . really be and do?” asks Bowen. “It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot. During dialogue, the characters confront one another. The confrontation is in itself an occasion. Each one of these occasions, throughout the novel, is unique. Since the last confrontation, something has changed, advanced. What is being said is the effect of something that has happened; at the same time, what is being said is in itself something happening, which will, in turn, leave its effect.”

There are moments when I look around the crowded dinner table and wonder, what can these people possibly be saying to each other? William Slone urges writers to “know what the scene is supposed to accomplish and have your characters talk toward it, not in circles.” Without this knowledge firmly grounded in the author’s mind, dialogue becomes a dead weight, and instead of propelling your plot, it sinks the story.

So if you’re stuck with a room full of speechless/mindless characters, switch on the Spanish channel and start oiling your gears. Or there’s always the option of hopping a plane to Europe. Look me up—I’m in Kiev through August!