How Writers Write Dialogue in Fiction

Every time I write a short story, I almost always end up with at least two characters talking to each other. I do it in longer pieces of fiction, too. It’s one of my favourite things to write because it’s interesting how you can differentiate two people without describing them, only through what they say.

It’s weird how I’ve struggled in the past to write screenplays, since I’m normally able to write good dialogue in prose. But in prose, I can write them into a scene without vague stage directions, etc. I think this differentiates the talents between different types of writers. I know writers who are just naturally good at writing scripts, whereas, for some reason, I can’t picture the scene if I write it that way.

The one short story that inspired the way I write short stories is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway. I read this when I was about 19 years old in university. I thought it was weird that it was just two people talking. And then on the second reading, I realised the dialogue pretty much held up the entire story by itself.

“The girl looked at the bead curtain. ‘They’ve painted something on it,’ she said. ‘What does it say?’

‘Anais del Toro. It’s a drink.’

‘Could we try it?’

The man called ‘Listen’ through the curtain. The woman came out from the bar.

‘Four reales.’

‘We want two Anais del Toro.’

‘With water?’

‘Do you want it with water?’

‘I don’t know,’ the girl said. ‘Is it good with water?’

‘It’s all right.’

‘You want them with water?’ asked the woman.

‘Yes, with water.’”

Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway

I remember reading this and thinking ‘What the hell’s going on?’ They just seemed to be talking about the drink they were ordering and if it was good with water. But what’s so good about this is how natural it is. Sometimes when writing you can forget how people talk since you’re writing fiction, but people talk like this. Real dialogue is trivial and pointless, but when done well, it helps absorb the reader into the story.

It can be funny as well. A lot of the time in my own writing, I make one of my characters mishear something. This makes the use of ‘What?’ quite funny, because people do this.

Two writers who use humour in their dialogue are David Foster Wallace and Donald Barthelme. I find these two writers play with their characters and imagine just about anything that could be said in real life. Digressions is a huge humour device in Wallace’s fiction. No ‘he said’, ‘she said’, it’s just the speech that rolls and rolls as if you’re hearing it in realtime.

“‘Don’t love you no more.’

‘Right back at you.’

‘Divorce your ass.’

‘Suits me.’

‘Except now what about the doublewide.’

‘I get the truck is all I know.’

‘You’re saying I get the doublewide you get the truck.’

‘All I’m saying is that truck out there’s mine.’

‘Then what about the boy.’”

Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men), David Foster Wallace.

The way Wallace write this dialogue here is to tell the story through what they have to say. This is the start of the story (the entirety of this very short story is wholly dialogue) so the reader is thrown in the middle of this argument. You don’t know who’s speaking, so you don’t know whose side you’re on. It doesn’t matter who’s saying it, what matters is what’s being said. The fact that they argue over the truck before their child shows how ridiculous their domestic argument is. That material objects come before their son.

But look at the lack of question marks too. Wallace does this a lot. But so do a lot people when they speak. It’s almost a rhetorical question, but it still requires an answer, it just emphasises the way this character is speaking. He/she is stating their words, not asking. ‘You’re saying I get the doublewide you get the truck.’ It makes it sound like they’re on a different level to the other character. There’s a lack of caring, a lack of listening. ‘Then what about the boy’ also is not a question in itself, and this makes it funny. That the character states this makes their son just an object like the truck.

There’s a story called Margins by Donald Barthelme. In it, one man is arguing with another man who is carrying a sandwich board over himself. The board says something about him needing a job. The first man is arguing over the second man’s grammar and margins on the board. What I like about this story is the back and forth and how their aggression switches places now and again. By changing the subject over a few lines is a good trick to digress subtly, which can have quite a large effect on your character.

I mentioned scripts at the start of this blog, so I’ll mention plays. One of my favourite playwrights, Harold Pinter, wrote The Dumb Waiter. I recently saw a student rendition of The Dumb Waiter in Liverpool. Seeing this acted out let me see the famous pauses and silences from the play, the pacing, and how drawn-out the story is just from the words of two characters in one room. The trivial, pointless dialogue makes the scene natural and makes the reader or audience member immerse themselves in the story. But subtle cues in the words used make the reader/viewer question it. Piece by piece, a story can come together as little bits are revealed, which can be even more rewarding when one character knows as much as the reader does.

I recently read a play by Sam Shepard called Ages of the Moon. In this play, again there are two characters. One character, Ames, is on-edge and had called his friend, Byron, to sit with him on his porch. The dialogue digresses multiple times, showing Ames’ thoughts are all over the place, which helps Shepard to be able to write smaller stories within. This builds up a tension between the two characters, up to the revealing end. In Ages of the Moon, Ames and Byron switch places in the way Ames is aggressive and then sorry. The way Shepard writes this dialogue, the digressions, the trivial things, the miscommunications, allows the two characters to exist in, what seems like, a real-life scene. Ames’ anger is stupid and uncalled-for, but there’s a sadness to him. The responses and answers from both of them move the story through each of their personalities.

I think dialogue is an important part of fiction writing, and when done well it can be both funny and dramatic, and will help lead the story on, sometimes better than the prose itself. What’s special about good dialogue is that you can use different words or turns of phrase in order to make two characters sound differently without stating who spoke. Dialogue is a good literary device to move the story and can be very revealing of the character.

Michael Holloway

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