Saturday, October 16, 2010

How to Write Phone Conversation:

One thing I see a lot of in student manuscripts (and something I am undoubtedly guilty of) is horrible phone dialogue. Okay, I know, that might be too narrow. The real problem is horrible dialogue, regardless of its medium. But the issue gets magnified when two characters pick up the telephone. In these scenes, there is nothing to distract the reader from the too-stiff, too-direct one-liners. 

I read a lot of manuscripts in workshop. Telephones are everywhere. Most of the characters in these manuscripts only pick up the telephone to talk about plot points, to talk business. This is what it might look like:

"Hi Dad," I said.
"Hey," he said.
"How's your dialysis going?" I asked.

"Not so good, I'm probably going to die soon." He said, mournfully.

Die? I thought. Could it really be that serious? I hung up the phone, and cried.

There are, of course, many problems with this passage (that I just made up), but let's focus on what's actually being said. The father and son in this passage are discussing the father's terminal illness. It's serious stuff, but it doesn't feel serious. This conversation feels stale and incomplete. It lacks life.

The problem is simple: this passage doesn't accurately reflect the way human beings talk to each other. When we discuss things with others (friends, family, enemies, it doesn't matter), we usually don't jump straight into the business end of a conversation, and stubbornly refuse to leave it. We get sidetracked. We wander off course for a line or two, and find our way back to the important stuff. Talking about cancer is hard, it should feel that way. Sometimes, we don't want to talk about what we have to talk about. So we talk about other things and hope for a segue, and then tentatively get to the meat of things. Other times, our characters might jump into the meat of things but wander off course early on. This prevents the dialogue from being too linear, too stale, and too boring.

To illustrate good dialogue, here is the opening passage from "Housewarming," by Kevin Wilson:

Mackie's son needed help with the deer. "It's in our pond," Jackson said to his father, "and we've got a housewarming party tomorrow afternoon and this damn deer is in our pond. It's dead, by the way. I don't remember if I told you that."

"I assumed that," Mackie said. "This is the first I've heard of a housewarming."

"It's just some people from work," his son said without pausing, "it's no one you would want to be around."

"How did it die?" he asked.

"Well, it drowned, I guess. It's floating in our pond. I don't know what else to tell you."

"You want me to come up there?" Mackie asked.

"Why do you think I'm calling?" his son replied, and both of them hung up the phone without saying another word.

This conversation feels alive. We are learning about the characters not only by what they are saying, but by how and when they are saying them. The reader understands the business at hand: there's a dead deer in a pond that needs to be removed. But we get more than that. Mackie and his son talk about the housewarming party, and we're already sensing it's significance. We're already feeling the exclusion, the resentment from Mackie.

It should go without saying that characters should speak like real people. In this passage we can hear the voices (and we don't even need a "he said mournfully" to help us out) and we can intuit the under-the-surface stuff.

All good writers do this. Dialogue is a huge part of characterization, we should all take great care not to screw it up. I suggest eavesdropping on public conversation. Take a notepad to your favorite diner, and start jotting down some of the things people in the next booth are saying. Write down how they are saying it. Then compare what you're writing down to your own written dialogue. Pretty sad, huh? If it isn't sad, then you're on the right track. But you should probably take your notepad with you anyway. Get to eavesdropping. This stuff is gold.

You might notice I've italicized the word "feel" a few times. That's because writing good conversation is so much about how it feels. If you're struggling with determining whether or not your dialogue feels right, try reading it out loud. It should sound like you're not reading.

If you can write dialogue well, you're miles ahead of most other writing students. This stuff doesn't come naturally, it takes some work to get it right (this is true for all good writing). The work is, I tell myself, worth it. No good writer gets by without it. You do want to be a good writer don't you? Don't you?

For supplemental reading, check out Megan Mayhew Bergman's article, "Trying to Write the Southern Accent." Accented or not, the article contains some great dialogue tips.