Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Art of Bad Conversation

Dialogue. It feels like the easiest thing in the world to write, doesn't it? Somebody says something, then somebody else answers. And then that person responds, and the first person responds to the response, and pretty soon you've got eight double-spaced pages and you're heading for the early bird special at Denny's with a big self-aggrandizing smile on your face.

And then, a few weeks later, you read what you wrote, and it's the boringest thing imaginable. What the hell?

Maybe you ought to go back to Denny's--not for the food, for some eavesdropping. If you listen to the way people actually talk, it doesn't work the way you think. People don't respond to each other in the expected way. Thoughts go unfinished. Someone starts arguing a point, and then abruptly gives up. Someone changes her mind, or changes the subject. Sometimes two people who appear to be talking to each other are actually holding two separate conversations with themselves, out loud.

Some of the best dialogue I've read can be found in James Welch's 1974 novel Winter In The Blood. There is a lot of talking in bars in this book, and nobody's ever quite listening to anyone else; multiple conversations are carried on at once, and when anybody says anything, it takes another line or two before anybody else notices. Here's a bit from late in the novel. The narrator has just been in a fight, and he comes home to find his grandmother's chair empty. Soon his mother and stepfather walk in the door:

     "She passed away," Teresa said, setting down the sack of groceries.
     "What did you do to your nose?" Lame Bull said.
     Teresa looked at him. "It was a merciful death."
     "Where is she now?" I said.
     "We took her to Harlem." Teresa began to put the canned goods in the cupboard.
     "Somebody busted me one," I said to Lame Bull. "How come? Why don't we bury her here, where the rest of them are?"
     "She was a fine woman," Lame Bull said.
     "Because they have to fix her up. They'll make her look nice. And Father Kittredge will want to say a few words over her."
     "But it would have been easier to bury her here," I said. "She didn't even go to church."
     "Can't you get it through your head that we are going to bury her here?" The voice was calm. "As for looking nice--it's the least we can do."
     "Standard procedure," Lame Bull said.
     "Will the priest come down to bury her?"
     Teresa turned. She had been putting the milk in the icebox. "I don't know, if he can get away."
     "Like he did when we stuck First Raise in the ground?"
     She looked away. "He's very busy. They're sending him to another parish...Idaho."
     "Look here, boy." Lame Bull pulled a bottle of wine from a paper sack.

First Raise is the narrator's father, and a whole raft of resentment and unhappiness--about his absence, and about Lame Bull's presence, and about Teresa's affiliation with the priest, whom the narrator considers a fake, is coiled up in those efficient lines.

If you keep reading another page, you get to the funniest line in the book, too. Lame Bull, trying to justify his purchase of the bottle of wine, offers the following testimonial: "I saw a guy drinking this once in Great Falls."


rmellis said...

The last time I went to Denny's, every single conversation I overheard was about getting wasted.

Most dialogue -- real and written -- is boring. Dialogue should never substitute for good writing. It should need to be there.

Anonymous said...

Well...I didn't mean you should get your content at Denny's...

5 Red Pandas said...

When you get to the part about dialogue in your teaching, which writers do you use as examples?

When I get that far off look on my face while we're out to eat, or on the subway, my husband says, like he's narrating a wild life documentary- "There she is, gathering material." I'm glad I look so transparent. It's amazing I haven't been punched in the face yet on the subway.

But yes, most people's convos are mundane. Still, when you strike gold, it can be very rewarding.