A Novel Approach: Number 17: “We need to talk.”

Dialogue breathes life into writing. People do talk. Characters must talk. It’s that simple.

Dialogue can be written to do anything that omniscience can do, whether it is describing an event or moving from one scene to the next or revealing someone’s true character through what they say. Through conversations between characters, or by revealing the inner dialogue a character has with himself, the writer turns a work that otherwise would be a mere recount of tales and scenes into a personal relationship with the characters, bringing the reader into the heart of the matter and making him a personal witness to an unfolding story.

To write dialogue, however, you must rigidly apply several concepts, and we’ll talk about them over the next few sessions. Let’s begin with ‘what are you writing about?

The principle purpose of writing anything should be to tell a story. Every line will contribute to or detract from what it is the author wants the reader to get. Dialogue, conversations between humans (or vampires, or wizards), lifts that story to a much higher plane. Let’s use an example taken from Gone with the Wind: what was Margaret Mitchell writing about, and how did she use dialogue to do it?

During the siege of Atlanta Miss Scarlett finds herself trapped alone with her adversary-for-Ashley, Melanie Wilkes, and she is stuck with seeing that Melanie makes it through the delivery of Ashley’s child. At the beginning of the scene, when they learn that Dr. Meade can’t attend Melanie, their slave girl Prissy tells them to not worry because she can do it:

“I knows all about bringin’ babies.” Prissy goes on to say that even though Mammy is not around to help, she knows how because she has helped Mammy mid-wife ‘dozens of times.’

Scarlett is a bit queasy about her and Prissy midwifing Melanie so she goes to find Dr. Meade, only to discover the disaster of the Atlanta railroad yard — amid the cannon fire and smoke and surrounded by the wounded who are screaming and dying, Confederate troops are trying to fend off the Yankees and to get trains to roll troops to the next point of defense. Scarlett does find Dr. Meade but he is up to his elbows in bludgeoned boys and she finally understands that she has no choice but to count on Prissy. Scarlett goes back to the house where, by this time, Melanie is in the throes of delivery. Steeling herself for the worst, she tells Prissy to get ready. Prissy drops the bomb:

“Lawdy, Miss Scarlett — I don’ know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies. We got to have a doctor.”

In this one dialogue-rich scene, the author told her entire story. On the surface the birth of little Wilkes looks like a tragi-comic muck-up about delivering a nemesis’ baby with the aid of a hapless servant. However, the dialogue blended into that scene is nothing less than a perfect mirror of the South as perceived by Margaret Mitchell: unrealistic promises, the belief that dealing with the enemy would be distasteful but easy because it would be left to others, the failure of expected relief to show up, and then the awful truth – this was a disaster. The leaders of the confederacy knew no more about building a nation than Prissy knew about birthing babies and, in the end, they were every bit as miserable. Mitchell knew what she was writing about.

Dialogue can do that for you. So, let’s see what we can learn about writing dialogue and, in future installments, we’ll explore some of the ways you might do it.
‘Til next time,
Jack