Dashiell Hammett once wrote an article about the essence of how a writer creates engaging dialogue. Those of us familiar with Hammett’s laconic prose and sparse writing style know that he was extremely effective when it came to writing good dialogue. Perhaps most amazing about the article, however, is that Hammett wrote it for a magazine that was designed for advertising. Take a look at the following quote from his article, “The Advertisement IS Literature.”
You may read tons of books and magazines without finding, even in fiction, dialogue, any attempt to reproduce common speech. There are writers who do try it, but they seldom succeed. Even in such a specialist in the vernacular as Ring Lardner gets his effect of naturalness by skillfully editing, distorting, simplifying, coloring the national tongue, and not by reporting it verbatim.
Hammett’s point is that an effective writer will not try to mimic human speech but rather catch the flavor of it. Anybody out there remember Richard M. Nixon? He secretly taped his conversations in the Oval Office, ostensibly for the purpose of assisting him in writing his memoirs. But the tapes came back to bite him in the behind when the Watergate scandal became public and excerpts from the tapes were printed in the New York Times. A lot of people bought the paper and started to read with great anticipation, only to find the conversations a bit . . . shall I say boring?
They were full of a lot of sentences like the following”
“Unn, yeah… Unn, well . . . (Expletive deleted).”
Maybe if they would have undeleted a few of those expletives the text would have been more readable. But it brings home a point: an actual conversation between two people can be downright boring. If you don’t believe me, sit next to two loquacious conversationalists in a public place and eavesdrop a little.
“Did I tell you what Paul said the other night?”
“No . . . Ooooh, was it cool?”
“Totally, totally so cool. Like supercool.”
“You are so lucky. He’s so totally, like, totally cool.”
“Tell me about it.”
PLEASE, DON’T. (Italics added, size adjusted.)
Okay, the aforementioned “conversation” is admittedly a fictionalized version between two airheads, but it hopefully proves my point. This dialogue has no meaning outside the context of this personal communication between these two individuals. In fiction writing, dialogue must advance the storyline. And it has to do it in a succinct manner. Otherwise you run the risk of losing the reader.
I call this type of pointless conversation in fiction “pass the potatoes dialogue.” It’s characterized by superfluous interchanges between characters that does not serve to advance the plot and that slows down the action. These types of interchanges should be cut immediately. Imagine a tense scene in which a dysfunctional family is sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, knowing that at any moment all hell will break loose. What’s the last thing the reader wants to hear? “Pass the potatoes, please.” “Oh, certainly. Here you go.” “Do you want some cranberry sauce to go with them?” “No, thank you.” “I’d like some of those peas.” “Mmm, try the cornbread. It’s delicious.”
Do you feel like grabbing a loaf of French bread and hitting someone over the head with it? I do, and I like to eat.
What else does dialogue do? A good writer can use it to tell something about the character through his speech.
Take for example from The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is in the hotel room of Casper Gutman, the villain, who’s trying to see how much Spade really knows about the black bird. He’s being both obsequious, yet evasive at the same time. How did Hammett convey this? Take a listen to the following exchange.
“Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
They drank and lowered their glasses.
The fat man looked shrewdly at Spade and asked, “You’re a close-mouthed man?”
Spade shook his head. “I like to talk.”
“Better and better,” the fat man exclaimed. “I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice.” He beamed over his glass. “We’ll get along, sir, that we will.” . . . “Now, sir we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
Just by reading these lines you get a pretty good feel for Gutman’s character, don’t you? Even if you didn’t know he was a bad guy, and at this point in the novel that hasn’t been revealed yet, you know he’s duplicitous and out for himself. Hammett uses the man’s speech to paint a picture of his character. This dialogue was so good it was used in two of the film versions of the novel. The screenwriters simply lifted it from the page to the script.
Few modern authors were better at writing dialogue than the late Robert B. Parker. Many of his later Spenser books relied heavily on dialogue to advance the story. He had the speech patterns of each character down pat. Thus he could have Spenser wax philosophically about a poet or his love for Susan, his soul mate. He also is adept at having Hawk, Spenser’s best friend for life, respond in the manner using the vernacular of a black thug.
Here’s an example of an interchange between Spenser and a Federal agent named Ives from his novel Backstory.
“Have you consulted our counterintelligence cousins at the4 Bureau?”
“There seems to be a missing file.”
Ives smiled again. “Ahhh,” he said.
Ives began to nod his head slowly as he spoke.
“How do you know it exists?” he said.
“It was mentioned in a police report. Said an FBI intelligence report was coming.”
“And it wasn’t there.”
“And the FBI can’t find it.”
“What does that tell you?” he said.
“Two possibilities,” I said.
“One being that they are sloppy filers,” Ives said.
“And the other that something’s being covered up.”
Notice Parker’s use of identifiers. Most of the time you know who’s speaking, and when he does put an identifier in, it’s a masterful use of rhythm and cadence.
Ah, Bobbie, we’ll miss you.
Another great writer of sparse, essential dialogue is Elmore Leonard. Leonard always writes in the third person. He wastes little time with descriptions and prefers to let the reader develop the character in his or her own imagination as the characters reveal themselves through their conversations.
When you do dialogue, do your best to get it right. Capture the essence, but toss in enough uniqueness to make it distinctive. Put in a few distinctions to give it flavor, but use them as you would seasoning in a stew: With a certain and deliberate caution. Since I’ve been ripping off the great masters like Hammett and Parker to illustrate my points, I’ll finish up by putting in a snatch of dialogue from my short story, “The Black Rose.” The speaker is Brax, an American gangster in modern day Japan, talking with a Japanese national who is an Oriental version of Brax---A member of the Yakuza.
“You’re sure that Tanaka dude ain’t gonna find us?” Brax asked.
Several of the men in the courtyard yelled in unison, brandishing their bamboo swords and charging their opponents.
“Tanaka Mishima knows where we are,” Kiroshi said. “But he will not come.”
Brax thought about that and decided if two foreigners had whacked his daughter, he’d be sure to try and ice them before they took off for parts unknown. He hurled another silent curse at Stevie for getting him into this mess. Taking the boss’s son along on a business trip like this had been a mistake from the get-go. He’d known it, and Stevie’s excesses, when it came to hookers, was what did them in. Instead of completing the simple transaction agreement like he wanted, and getting the hell back to the States, idiot Stevie had to get laid.
And how was I supposed to know he liked things rough, Brax thought. Real rough. And then the dead hooker turned out to be this ex-hitman’s daughter . . .
“So just how good is this Tanaka guy?” Brax asked.
Kiroshi’s eyes narrowed and he held up his thumb. “I trained him to be the best-best.”
One of the female servants, dressed in a flowing kimona, stepped on to the porch and bowed, saying something in Japanese. Kiroshi grunted a response and motioned for her to set the tray down.
“He was a cast-off of your army’s occupation,” he said picking up one of the small cups and sipping from it. “His father was a GI, his mother Japanese. When I found him, he was an einoko running the streets. I took him in, raised him as my shatei, taught him the way of the katana.” Kiroshi paused and Brax thought he saw something akin to pride in the older Oriental’s expression. “In the years that followed, after the occupation, he became legend among the yakuza, able to master every technique, every weapon, and completely without fear. And yet he also had honor. He would leave a black rose with each of his... assassinations.” He murdered the pronunciation again, but Brax got the idea. It sent a cold shiver up his spine. “It would be,” Kiroshi continued, “the last thing seen before his katana struck.”
Well, for extolling the virtues of being succinct, I’ve certainly let this one spiral out of control, haven’t I? I’ll end it with some of the best advice I ever got.
Good writing is essentially rewriting. ~ Roald Dahl.
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