The Art of Conversation

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942), The Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikipedia

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942), The Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikipedia

I like old movies (no, not 80s movies). I like them because they were filmed in an age where words mattered more than special effects. The characters were a part of the plot, not vehicles for it, and their chemistry mattered. This is one of my favourite scenes from To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks):

This is what I get out of this scene. First, the tone is set early – it’s playful, although they’re talking about something serious. There’s a tension between them, but these two play their cards close to their chest. There’s conflict here, but not a full-blown argument. They cut each other off, they get caught lying, theyflirt. And, most importantly, what they say matters even if it doesn’t appear to be the case.

Here is another favourite scene from the same film:

This is pure conflict right from the start, but he keeps his cool. He starts to roll up his sleeves. He doesn’t care if she’s upset. He’s there for a reason. We start to get the sense that he knows what he’s doing but there’s no big speech about his past or experience. She is standing firm: it’s stupid, we all know it – she’s being silly. He’s cold, direct, but we know he cares – it’s just not his way to show compassion through his words – he does it through his actions. Then it’s all business. She’s stubborn. He gives her something to do – he’s taking the lead and everyone lets him – he has confidence. Notice the stretches of silence – they’re only brief but nobody fills them with pointless words. Finally, my favourite bit:

Slim: What are you trying to do, guess her weight?
Steve: She’s heftier than you think. *Pause* Better loosen her clothes.
Slim: You’ve been doing all right.
He sits down to loosen the woman’s collar.
Slim: Uh, maybe you better look after her husband.

This bit conveys her jealousy but does so with subtlety. The line about loosening clothes is awesome. He obviously has no designs on the wife and is all business. Still, Slim can’t stand to see it.

I learned a lot about writing dialogue from watching films like this. Getting the dialogue right is a big deal – bad dialogue is very obvious. Common mistakes include:

  • Making a character say something that people just don't say.
  • Making a bad guy talk like a villain from a James Bond movie; "Your actions are foolish and futile" or "The blueprints are essential to the success of my evil plan." Nobody has an evil laugh and nobody really spins in their chair to say "So, we meet at last". 
  • Making a character spew a page of dialogue to explain the plot to a reader.
  • Making characters say what they think/feel - nobody ever really does that
  • And, one of my favourites, making the protagonist's love interest spend a page rationalising why she's going to hang around despite having just watched him brutally murder a bunch of people. 

I could go on. I won't. There are lists on the internet full of advice. Some of it is pretty good. My point is that something weird happens when we start to write what people say - we tend to mess it up. So, what about how people talk in real life? Sit in a cafe, and you may observe the following:

  • Most of what people say is confusing. As in, a casual eavesdropper will probably have no idea what they're talking about.
  • Most of what people say probably never needed to be said in the first place.
  • People like to laugh.
  • Not all of us are very funny.
  • People don't really use big words.
  • People struggle to find the right words, particularly when trying to say something important.
  • People sometimes try to avoid saying important things altogether.
  • People use a lot of fillers in conversation: 'like', 'um', 'ah', and I believe 'fuck' in its various forms fits this category too.
  • People exaggerate.

Again, I could go on. Again, I won't. I will, however, tell you how I get around some of these issues when writing dialogue. First, I try to make good characters with unique personalities, interests, and motives. Then, I throw them into a story. Finally, I write what they say as they try to keep out of trouble.

That's it. Easy, right?

Some things to remember:

  • If you've created good characters, they'll develop a voice of their own.
  • Criminals talk like criminals. Cops talk like cops. Everyone else talks like everyone else. In a lot of ways, people have the same vernacular and verbal tics, but your solicitor probably doesn't talk like a mechanic.
  • Some people swear. A lot.
  • Characters are allowed to say one thing and then do another.
  • People sometimes reveal themselves through their actions rather than their words - characters can do the same.
  • If you plan on putting in some witty banter, keep the tone of the dialogue casual throughout the whole story. It's easier to step up to a formal tone than it is to step down - the joke will just jar and seem disingenuous.
  • This is a personal one, but never make a character say 'I love you' if that's what you're trying to express. I only use this line if I want the words to seem empty and pointless. This is one of those 'show don't tell' things.
  • Conflict sustains stories, particularly thrillers. This doesn't mean arguing or fist fights. A back and forth sustains dialogue and keeps it interesting.
  • Here's the hardest one: two characters may be so close as to have their own personal language. That is, certain words have a particular significance to them that isn't shared with anybody else. This means that simple words said in a particular way may be completely earth-shattering. It may also mean that some things are left unsaid. Letting the reader in on this is really hard to do well.

Unfortunately, this isn't a comprehensive list. This is just what I've been able to come up with in the last couple of weeks.

The most important thing to remember is that writing takes practice. Writing dialogue takes practice too. Writing dialogue well starts with watching Bogart and Bacall.

P.S. Astute readers who have finished my book may notice that nicknames used in To Have and Have Not have a particular significance. Now you know.