When I was a younger writer, I remember coming across this old adage about writing dialogue time and again:
Dialogue should do one of two things: advance the plot or reveal character.
Which was all well and good. Advancing the plot I understood. Clearly, the following conversation isn’t going anywhere:
“Hey, Dave. How’s it going?”
“Good, Bill. Nice weather we’ve got today.”
“Heard it might rain tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Sure be a bummer if it rained.”
I know. Who farted, right?
Dialogue needs to move. It’s kinetic. The minute it starts to slow it becomes obvious that we’re reading a story.
“Dave, my man. What’s happening?”
“Not much, Billy boy. Except you better watch out later on tonight.”
“I heard Damien’s looking for you.”
“Aw, fuck. He knows?”
There. That’s more like it. Movement. Tap tap tap. Like a ball sailing from one side of the net to the other. Even a young writer just starting out can understand dialogue should move the story forward.
But revealing character is a whole other ball game. For years, I struggled with this other element of dialogue. How did dialogue reveal character?
“Billy! How’s it hanging?”
“Low and to the left, actually. See, when I was just a wee lad, I lost my Dad in the war. We didn’t exactly have a lot of money, so Mom had to work two jobs. My brother William worked too. And I cleaned house. Did all the chores. We had a rough life until Mom met Henry. She got married in…”
Are you asleep yet?
This certainly reveals character, but now the ball isn’t sailing over the net. It whacked the net and bounced off into the trees, maybe never to be seen again.
So long, ball.
So long, reader.
It wasn’t until I watched The Godfather Part III that I finally began to understand how dialogue revealed character. I wish I could tell you I learned about writing dialogue from a master of the craft. Elmore Leonard or Richard Price. John Sandford or Ed McBain. Or that at the very least I could claim to have taken careful notes during The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, both of which are clearly superior movies.
Alas, it didn’t happen that way.
The Godfather Part III is many things. Great is not one of them. But it has individual scenes which are stunning, including the scene that taught me about how dialogue can reveal character. The scene in question is Michael Corleone’s confession to Cardinal Lamberto, which takes place in a secluded abbey. Michael, played brilliantly by Al Pacino, is struck by a diabetic attack, which clearly weakens his defenses and leads to his willingness to confess to a priest he has never met before.
Michael: What is the point of confessing, if I don’t repent?
Cardinal Lamberto: I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose? Huh?(then, after a long pause) Go on.
Michael: I uh, I betrayed my wife.
Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son.
Michael: I betrayed myself.
I killed men.
And I ordered men to be killed.
Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son, go on.
Michael: Nah, it’s useless.
Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son.
Michael: I killed — I ordered the death of my brother. He injured me. I killed my mother’s son. I killed my father’s son. <He breaks down in tears.>
This is not drastically different from the earlier bit of “biography dialogue” that puts the reader to sleep, except in one crucial way.
When I used to teach creative writing, we watched this scene in class and I always asked the students afterward what Michael considered to be his greatest sin. Not a particularly difficult question. Hands always shot up. The first few students answers were always the same:
“He killed his brother.”
Which is a smart answer. But wrong.
Puzo and Coppola, who wrote the scripts for The Godfather Trilogy, masterfully explore Michael’s guilt in this scene, and they do so by revealing the way in which Michael views the world. The murder of Fredo, his older brother, is not a single crime. It is, in fact, three distinct sins:
I ordered the death of my brother.
I killed my mother’s son.
I killed my father’s son.
It is this last sin that, in Michael’s mind, is greatest, for he loved and respected his father above all else. It is his betrayal of his father that haunts him more than any other act his has committed in a long life of adultery, drug trafficking, pimping, gambling, and cold blooded murder.
When I saw this scene, the light came on. Dialogue revealed character partially in the way someone talked: their accent, their dialect, the specific words they used, the pattern and rhythm of their speech. But it also revealed character by illustrating the way in which they viewed the world.
As a writer, obviously, you can have a character simply come out and declare their beliefs. Michael could say: “I love my father above everything else.” It’s apt then to note that Puzo and Coppola never put those words in Michael’s mouth, not once over the course of nine-plus hours.
In real life, people rarely declare how they see the world. People declare their opinions about the world, but an opinion is not the same thing as a way of seeing. Indeed, we are often not even aware of the sum total of our experiences and how they have shaped our perceptions.
As writers, our task is to let our characters speak as they truly would, not declaring their perceptions (which would sound bizarre), but revealing their perceptions by how they talk.
There are many fine writers who achieve this at work today. One of my favorites is JK Rowling, who rarely gets much credit as a master of dialogue. Rowling’s characters are each incredibly distinct, down to her minor characters who play only bit roles. Because she has crafted them with powerful personalities and elaborate backstories, when her characters speak they are consistently revealing their worldview.
Here’s a good line:
Now if you two don’t mind, I’m going to go to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed…or worse, expelled. (Hermione Granger)
Not too hard to figure out how Hermione’s priorities are organized. Just like with Michael, Hermione’s dialogue reveals her own perception of what matters most in the world. And just like Michael, she doesn’t come right out and declare it.
A final example:
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, Dick Driver (a married man) becomes embroiled with the very young actress Rosemary Hoyt.
“I know you don’t love me–I don’t expect it. But you said I should have told you about my birthday. Well, I did, and now for my birthday present I want you to come into my room a minute while I tell you something. Just one minute.”
They went in and he closed the door, and Rosemary stood close to him, not touching him. The night had drawn the color from her face–she was pale as pale now, she was a white carnation left after a dance.
“When you smile–” He had recovered his paternal attitude, perhaps because of Nicole’s silent proximity. “I always think I’ll see a gap where you’ve lost some baby teeth.”
But he was too late–she came up against him with a forlorn whisper.
“Take you where?”
Astonishment froze him rigid.
“Go on,” she whispered. “Oh, please go on, whatever they do. I don’t care if I don’t like it–I never expected to–I’ve always hated to think about it but now I don’t. I want you to.”
Fitzgerald peppers the dialogue with some fine description to heighten the tension of his character’s talk (Rosemary’s virginity obviously highlighted by her paleness, their difference in age by Dick’s paternal feelings). But much of the character’s view of the world is embedded in the dialogue, especially Rosemary’s.
When she tosses herself at Dick, her words reveal precisely what she thinks of herself and her place in the world, as well as her naivete. That she never expected to enjoy sex tells us a lot about the value she places on herself. As if other women could be expected to, but not her. That this follows on her earlier admonition that she never expected Dick (or any other man, really) to love her either, is rather heartbreaking.
For me, once I started reading dialogue looking for these kind of revelations, they became easier to spot. Writing them, of course, is still a challenge. But worth the effort.
Who writes the best dialogue? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.
Want to read more about books, movies, writing and television? Check out The Black Cat Moan, the blog of award-winning writer Tyler Miller.
And don’t miss last week’s post: My Love Affair with Hookers: Great 1st Lines in Fiction.