“This book had a great variety of terrific sex scenes, but the author cannot write dialogue to save her life. They all end up sounding like wooden Indians.” ~ J. Mullally
The quote above comes from an Amazon review of my second novel, Incognito, published in 2002. Needless to say, the comment made me cringe, but I have to admit that when I started publishing, dialogue was definitely a weak spot for me.
Before diving into fiction, I’d written a lot of technical material: research papers, product specifications, user manuals, and a five-hundred page dissertation. I knew how to convey ideas in an articulate and logical manner, but I really had very little experience capturing the nuances of human conversation. Read some of my early dialogue and you’ll see the effects of my formal background.
* * *
“Miranda, I would like to present Mark Anderson, our new lecturer. Mark will be handling the Dickens course for the summer session.”
“Mark, this is Miranda Cahill, my most promising graduate student.” Miranda blushed, and Dr. Scofield’s eyes twinkled. “Miranda has chosen a rather controversial topic for her thesis: a new interpretation of the corpus of Victorian erotica.”
The newcomer’s polite smile expanded to a grin. “Really! That’s fascinating. Sounds far more—stimulating—than my dissertation on the metaphorical significance of orphans in Dickens and his contemporaries.”
Miranda’s blush deepened as she noted the double entendre. She met his teasing gaze, almost defiantly. “Yes, it is an intriguing topic, and I believe one of considerable literary and social significance, as well.” He had thick, dark hair, slightly tousled. His eyes behind the glasses were velvety brown with glints of gold. In his face, she saw intelligence, energy, and humor.
“Miranda has championed an unusual theory: that the explosion of sexually-oriented writing during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a reflection of actual practices, rather than a reaction against repressive public morals.” Her advisor appeared to be enjoying the role of agent provocateur. “She believes that the detailed accounts of sexual adventure and aberration published during the era chronicled real experiences, not merely fantasies.”
“Hmm.” Their bespectacled companion looked both amused and interested. “What evidence do you have to support this proposition?”
“Well, to begin with,” said Miranda, automatically adopting an academic tone, “a significant fraction of these writings are first person accounts. And a surprising number are related from a woman’s perspective. If this were primarily a literature of fantasy and titillation, I would expect a male point-of-view to dominate, as it does in modern pornography.” Miranda was encouraged to see that her audience listened attentively and gave due consideration to her points.
“Secondly, these tales are full of real-world details and commentary that would be superfluous and even distracting in fictional erotica. The protagonists discuss social issues such as poverty, child abuse, oppression of the lower classes, things that can only detract from a work intended as escapist fantasy. Even a hack pornographer knows better than to mention the unpleasant or the mundane: illegitimate pregnancies, unpaid bills, rising damp. Yet references to such items are common in the corpus.”
“Finally, I find in many of these writings a thoughtfulness that conflicts with the conventions of the pornographic genre. The narrators are engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities, which are described in vivid and provocative detail. At the same time, in many cases, they reflect on their own desires and behaviors, sometimes justifying themselves in the face of the official morality, sometimes castigating themselves for weakness and sinfulness. Either way, there is a psychological depth that would be redundant in fictional erotica.”
“So, what you are saying,” interposed Mark with a grin, “is that a fictional character would simply go ahead and bugger his maid, whereas an individual writing a clandestine diary would spend some time and effort wondering why he wanted to bugger his maid, before he got around to actually doing it?”
“No, no, that’s not it at all!” Miranda, embarrassed and flustered, wondered if the new instructor had been reading her manuscript over her shoulder. Her eyes flashed. “You’re not willing to take me seriously, any more than the submission review committee for the Association for Modern Literature!”
“Now, Miranda,” soothed her advisor. “Mark was just teasing you.” Looking again at the attractive stranger, Miranda saw that Scofield was telling the truth.
“Sorry, I really didn’t mean to offend you, Miranda.” Mark held out his hand like a peace offering. “I really am delighted to meet you. I think your theory is unconventional and provocative, but who knows, it might actually be true.”
* * *
As it happens, these characters are all academics (as I had been for such a long time), but still, their formality sounds artificial.
In my first books, people spoke in full sentences most of the time. They didn’t use contractions. They never interrupted one another. Furthermore, they used each other’s names so frequently that one might wonder whether they were trying to reinforce their faulty memories.
Fortunately I was more adept at writing sex scenes than dialogue, or I might never have found any readers!
The problem is that dialogue can play multiple, critical roles in a narrative. It reveals character— immediate emotions and concerns as well as more persistent aspects such as class and ethnicity. Dialogue also advances the action; indeed, speech is action, and an entire plot can turn on a conversation. Conversations can also inform the reader about history or backstory, in a more subtle and less disruptive manner than unadorned exposition. Thus, poor dialogue can be more than just an annoyance. It can ruin an entire book.
I joined ERWA in 2000, not long before I wrote this novel. Since then, I’ve participated in Storytime and Writers, written nearly a hundred stories and edited a number of anthologies. ERWA has exposed me to authors who are true doyens of dialogue, especially Bob Buckley, Daddy X, and more recently, Belinda LaPage.
My characters’ conversations still can’t begin to match some of what I read, but I know I’ve improved quite a bit. I now understand that in order to write dialogue successfully, you have to hear the characters in your head. How can you get to the point where your characters talk to you? By reading effective dialogue by other people, and by listening to people actually talking.
If you listen to real world conversations, you’ll recognize that they’re very “messy”. People rarely speak in full sentences. They sprinkle their dialogue with exclamations, “ums” and “ohs”, filling the space while they thing about what to say next. They start one utterance then interrupt themselves to express a totally different thought. They interrupt the other speakers too. Because the partners in a conversation have a shared context, one or two words can convey meaning without ambiguity. Of course, one partner can easily misunderstand this sort of abbreviated utterance, also.
People make grammar errors, too. You have no idea how hard it has been for me to let my characters do that! Between my education and my experience editing, I have finely tuned detectors for faux pas like dangling participles, tense errors, incorrect pronouns and word misuse. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what dialogue needs, to make a character seem real.
One useful exercise, I’ve found, is writing all-dialogue flashers. I learned how to do that from Daddy X, “the master of flash”. A flasher tells a complete story in 200 words or less. Trying to do this in dialogue is a fabulous challenge. You need to convey the characters, their relationships, and their actions, without any description at all (and ideally, without speak tags). I can’t begin to match Daddy’s expertise in the genre, but here’s an example that illustrates the technique:
By Lisabet Sarai
“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”
“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”
“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”
“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”
“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”
“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”
“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”
“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”
“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“
“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”
“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”
“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”
“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”
“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”
* * *
Then there’s the question of dialect, that is, using speech characteristics to convey nationality, race, social class and so on. Robert Buckley does this incredibly well. Whether his setting is Irish Boston or the Civil War South, his characters talk like natives.
I’ve mostly avoided dialect in my work. It’s really easy to overdo, and can make your dialogue difficult to read and understand. Recently, though, for my novella More Brides in Vegas, I had to create a character who spoke with a very strong dialect – for the sake of my plot and for comic effect. I sought out a lot of help from ERWA folk on this one, in particular from a member whose father came from Glasgow:
* * *
A gruff, male, almost unintelligible voice interrupted her.
“I wannae see the hoatel manager. Where’s the fookin’ manager, you little eejit?”
A giant of a man with a barrel chest and legs like telephone poles strode into the courtyard from the direction of the hotel lobby, dragging a skinny college-age boy with him. The kid—Chantal remembered she’d seen him behind the hotel desk when she’d picked up her key—cringed and silently pointed in Nan’s direction.
“Gawn! D’ye think ahm buttoned up the back? That nekkid dyke?”
Cool as anything, as self-assured as if she’d been wearing a designer suit instead of a strap-on, Nan rose to her feet and confronted the newcomer. Though she was at least a foot shorter, the obviously angry man paused when confronted by her natural authority
“I’m Nan Anderson, general manager of the Holiday House,” she said. “I’ll thank you to let Michael go.”
He glared at her from under bushy ginger brows. Nan didn’t flinch in the slightest.
“Now, please. He’s just a part-time clerk. Whatever your difficulty, I’ll take care of it.”
He opened his ham-sized hand. Poor Michael almost crumpled to the floor.
“Get back to the desk, Mike. I’ll handle this.”
The young man scuttled away.
“Now, sir,” she continued, her voice cool and professional despite her nudity. “What’s the problem?”
“Thae gormless tool said yer fool for the weeken’.” The foreigner scowled and waved a sheet of paper in her face. “Me an’ me mates booked an’ paid. Ye dinnae think we’re gonnae come all thae way to America fer a ternamen’ but nae reserve our rooms, did ye?”
“Can I see that, please?” Nan scrutinized what was obviously a printout from some website. “I have to admit the dates match. But we’re closed for a private event this weekend. We blocked out the rooms more than three months ago. I don’t know why the booking site—”
“Ah dinnae ken an’ ah dinnae cerr. Me an’ me chaps need beds. Been on a fookin’ plane for ferteen hours.”
“Um—how many are in your group?”
The angry customer shook his head. “Aye, but yer stoopit, lass. Who doesnae know thae a rugby team’s fifteen men?”
“Rugby?” Nan looked him up and down, as if that explained his stature. “Oh!”
The guy broke into a grin. “Glassgow Gladiators. City champs.”
“And you are?”
He gave a little bow. “Ian Stuart, team captain. At yer service.”
* * *
I will admit, I’m quite proud of this bit. It’s encouraging to see I’ve learned something in more than fifteen years of writing.
At least he doesn’t sound like a wooden Indian.