In 1959, I was a Freshman at East Haven High School, taking English in the college course. The major project in Freshman English was a term paper. If you can believe it, I chose to write on The Basic Characteristics of Nobel Prize Winning Literature. I based my paper on four books: Earnest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; The Stranger by Albert Camus; Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago; and Halldor Laxness’ Independent People. Miss Miller gave me an A+, mostly, I think for ambition and organization, making her my favorite teacher (she wore tight skirts and liked my writing, what more could a boy ask for in a teacher?). I actually read three of the books … I couldn’t make it through Independent People. Halldor Laxness was given to pages-long descriptive passages that renewed the great narrative art of Iceland … but left no room for dialog. Sorry Miss Miller.
Right now, I am mired about 60% of the way through Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, an imagined retelling of the siege of the Masada in 70 CE through the eyes of four women who have come to the fortress to escape Roman tyranny. The novel is a departure from her stories of unusual relationships and romance, tinged with magic … historical fiction is not my cup of words, which in part explains my slow pace. But The Dovekeepers is also told in a narrative style by each of the four women with no dialog. That slows me down, too. I hate to give up on a book, especially one by a favorite author, but I’m getting close.
The thing is, I love dialog. I’m not an especially fast reader, so slogging through pages of narrative prose wears me out. I need the change of pace of lively dialog to keep me going and I feel I know the characters best when I get to “hear” them speak, at least when the speech is crafted by a skilled writer like Elmore Leonard. And for writers seeking to follow the dictum, Show Don’t Tell, dialog is the ultimate tool. Insight to the speaker’s ethnicity, cultural background and state of mind can be shown through such markers as dialects, patterns of speech and jargon. Simple changes in dialog can bring suspense to an otherwise boring exchange. When a character asks, How are you? consider the difference between the responses, I’m fine and I suppose I’m OK. In the chapter on The Secrets of Good Dialog in Stein on Writing, Sol Stein stresses how different good dialog is from normal conversation. Much of what you’ll hear in the supermarket aisles, he says, sounds like idiot talk. People won’t buy your novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives and friends. Dialog, he teaches, is an invented semblance of speech that is designed to characterize, to move the story along, and impact the reader’s emotions. In other words, it’s Not Just Talking.
Next time you’re being swept away by great dialog in a novel, take a minute to notice how different it is from what you hear around you. And take a moment to be aware of how the author has crafted his words to take you where he wants you to go. It will make you a more appreciative reader and a better writer.