Dialogue: A Soliloquy

If that title hasn’t convinced you that I have absolutely no life, nothing will.

So, here again we have a collision of two topics that have been on my mind recently.  One is dialogue – I’ve been chatting to people both online and in real life a bit about dialogue recently, just because the topic happened to come up by happenstance.  Then, I’ve been reading Grapes of Wrath (yes, the Steinbeck one), and synapses decided to go ahead and collide and therefore blog post.  Because I like unleashing my ramblings on the world.
Keep in mind that I have never been to Depression-era California, Depression-era Arkansas, Depression-era anywhere, or, for that matter, American anywhere.  

For me, the dialogue in Grapes of Wrath really stood out, and it’s been taking me a little while to figure out why.  At first, when I was reading Of Mice and Men for year 10 English, I was impressed by how ‘real’ the dialogue was, and how true he stuck to the accents of the characters.
Being 16 at the time, it was also somewhat of a revelation to my sheltered, private-school-girl mind that “literary classics” (here having the sole meaning of “books we study in school”) actually admitted that people swore when talking, and that it wasn’t always an indicator of anger.

Looking back on those books with a little more writing experience, and a lot more reading experience, under my belt, I think that was an … inaccurate assessment *ducks rotten tomatoes*

For me to explain what I mean, let’s have a look at common advice I’ve seen given to writers about good dialogue.

  1. It must ‘feel real’ to a reader.
  2. It must not contain any of the stops, pauses, ums and ahs of ‘real’ speech, because they are distracting.
  3. Every character should have their own speaking style, which in turn, helps to convey their own character.

Generally, what makes newbie writers tear their hair out (at least, the ones I’ve talked to about this) is the first two.  “How do you make a character speak like a real person if you’re not allowed to use the things that real people do?”
I find the problem here is actually one of defining terms.  The second one, I find, is fine as is.  Dialogue should, in most cases be an idealised version of real speech.  Ums, ahs, and hesitations work best as indicators of other things, like that a character is embarrassed, or hiding something, rather than something everyone does.  It does get very difficult for a reader to read through, and after a while, they’re liable to skim something important.
(Remind me to write a post about writing “rules” and the hodgepodge mess surrounding them someday)
That said, I’m betting pretty much everyone who reads this has read, at some point in their lives, dialogue that just doesn’t sound like something normal people would say.  It’s stilted, it’s clunky, it contracts where it shouldn’t and doesn’t contract where it should, and you get absolutely no sense of the characters from it.  Sometimes you can’t even put your finger on why it feels so bad, but you just know real people don’t talk like that. So, we generally put the label “oh, you have to write like real people speak” on it and leave it at that.  After all, we know what we mean, right?
But what do we actually mean?  Chances are, we probably mean the “flow” of the work.

I, personally, would put dialogue as tied with action in the places where flow is the most critical in a work, and requires the most attention.  For action, it’s to make sure the reader is pulled along at the pace you need them to be pulled along at, using sentence length to vary how the reader experiences each moment, and especially to convey the tone of the fighting (is this a green soldier’s first battle, and there are gunshots and cannons and people and maybe a horse and WHAT IS GOING ON??, or is this a martial arts match against two highly capable masters, where each movement flows from the next to conserve energy and momentum, and they’re constantly analysing the other for slip-ups and openings?).  However, in dialogue, you want a different type of flow altogether.  People naturally speak with a sort of cadence – they do hesitate, they um and ah, but generally speech flows from thought in a way that words on a page don’t.  So speech has a little more of a feel of stream-of-consciousness about it.  Compare: “Can you get some milk while you’re out?  Before you go, Sandra said she needs to see you soon.  You should probably stop there on your way home.”  with “Can you get some milk while you’re out?  Oh, which reminds me – I met Sandra at the shop, and she said she needs to see you. You should probably do that on your way home.”  If I’ve done my job right, the second feels like it has much less of a disconnect in it, and probably feels more like “real speech” than the first one.  Therefore, you get a certain type of flow in dialogue that is often very hard to put your finger on.

On a more technical note, and something I’d need to study far more into linguistics and psychology than I actually have to really be qualified to talk about this, but I can give the basic version, and it starts with a very, very obvious statement.
When two or more people are talking, their goal is not always to convey information to each other.
I know, right?  Duh.  Any author worth their ink will use dialogue to convey things like how a character feels towards another character (even on such a basic level as “do they engage and answer questions fully, or are they answering only what they have to, in monosyllables if at all possible?”).  But that’s not the only thing that statement means.
If you go into the psychology of linguistics at all (and it’s a fascinating area), you’ll come across conversational cues.  Think about this next time you’re chatting to a friend.  How do you know when your friend has finished what they were saying and you’re now going to take your turn to speak?  Sure, they stop, but you can tell whether they’re just stopping for a breath or if they’re finished speaking, right?  When someone else is speaking, do you ever find yourself saying “yeah” and “uh-huh” at exactly the right times?  Have you ever wondered why?  Or maybe you’ve used those things to pretend like you’re interested in something someone has to say, but you’re really just waiting until it’s polite to leave.
Those things are part of the natural give-and-take of a conversation.  During speech, humans are constantly signalling to each other things like interest and when we can and cannot interrupt.  Phrases like “you know” or “am I right?” aren’t there to annoy or be dialogue tics all the time; often what they actually signal is that the speaker is checking whether the listener is still listening, that they’re following the thread of the conversation and haven’t become lost.
If dialogue feels stilted or wrong, oftentimes it’s because characters are talking at each other, not to each other.  You can’t put your finger on why, but you never feel like they’re actually interacting, that they’re just making mouth-noises at each other.  Then, what the author has failed to capture is that sense of interaction in the dialogue, the sense that the two people are really listening to each other and responding not only to the physical words said, but the manner in which they’re said, and the accompanying spoken cues.  Yes, it’s very difficult without ‘filler’ like ‘ah’ and overuse of phrases like, as previously mentioned ‘you know’, but since my screen is looking like a black block of text, I might file away “how to make dialogue sound like real people” a topic for another day.

The third point is fairly self-explanatory.

OK, now that’s out of my system, here’s the point: I would say that John Steinbeck, in his novels, only really fulfills the first point on that list.

Does that make it bad dialogue?  No, absolutely not.  But it does create an interesting dilemma – often I see it put around that following the second two rules, and improving word choice and expression, will naturally lead to the first point.  However, this is definitely not what happens in Steinbeck’s case.

So, in order:

One.  Dialogue sounds real.  Yep, check for that one.  No stilted dialogue, no feeling that characters talk at, not to each other. Definitely got the thumbs up on this one.

Two.  Dialogue is an idealised version of speech that contains none of the hesitations and idiosyncrasies of ‘real’ speech.  Nope.  Steinbeck uses that all the time.  Only it’s not phrased as “um” or “ah” – characters say “Well”, or they repeat themselves.  The obvious ones come up, like “I wanta hear it, but if I was rich, if I was rich …”, but there are the less obvious ones where a character will repeat a phrase throughout a conversation, like “Jes’ nearly faints, that’s all”.  Profanity is used like this as well, from the “Well, hell, I’d do it”, to “Goddamn it, [sentence]”.  It doesn’t sound like an um or ah, and it’s kind of not.  All of the things listed here are used for emphasis, except perhaps for ‘Well’.  In the ‘if I was rich” example, the person might well be hesitating, trying to think of an example of what they’d do if they were rich, and it could be a sort of emphasis as well – by repeating that statement absently, they reveal that is the focus of their thoughts: being rich, and being able to buy some land and a house, and not have to let their children starve.  The emphasis of the swearing is obvious.
As for “Well”, I’m not sure what the term is, but it’s a part of speech that’s not quite a word, has no inherent meaning, but in speech, indicates either (or both) that the speaker would like the opportunity to speak (sort of testing the water before accidentally cutting someone off) and that the speaker would like to introduce new information to the conversation, and therefore the people they’re speaking to should listen closely.  It’s a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it.  All these things violate rule 2, but since they carry so much extra meaning – swearing indicates social class and age, ‘well’ (or absence thereof) indicates how someone is approaching a conversation, and the repetition can often show exactly what’s on a character’s mind, while everyone speaks around the big issues and nobody admits to each other what’s worrying them.
So, rule 2 is pretty soundly broken.

And three.  Steinbeck’s characters don’t actually speak that differently from each other, with some exceptions.  Women don’t swear (as much), so those constructions are out.  However, most of them use the same phrases as each other “You’ll make me crazy”, “Well, hell, I don’t know”, and “I’m jes’ so tar’d” (I’m just so tired, for those whose eyes tend to burn at transcribed dialects).  You’ll see the same sentence constructions, the same word choices, the same ways of expressing indignance or frustration across most people.
So how does he convey character?  Actually, entirely with what the characters talk about, not how they talk about it.  One character might always be talking about how he’s going to be a mechanic, one might never want to mention his time in jail, another might always be talking about how much he’s sinned.  And that’s how they get defined, as well as by their actions towards others.
So, rule three is broken – but the way it’s broken actually cements all the men in the book as part of a whole.  Instead of reading about Tom Joad and his family, you’re reading about A Family.  Yeah, it totally isn’t going to work just on its own, but as part of the whole experience of that book, it helps to convey that feeling.

And that’s why Steinbeck does not follow standard dialogue wisdom, but it works anyway.  For me, at least.  As with all books and authors, your mileage may and does vary.  And I’ve brought up about five more topics I need to write on in the future.  Dialogue is a big issue, apparently.