Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wise Words: Janet Fitch on Dialogue

We talk all the time. So what’s so hard about dialogue? In a lecture titled “Riding a Unicycle While Spinning Plates” (2011 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop), author Janet Fitch discussed the ways in which something so seemingly straightforward can go oh-so-wrong.

The first rule of good dialogue, Fitch says, is compression. She points out that while most real life talk is intended to avert conflict, the purpose of dialogue in narrative is to reveal conflict, to bring people to the point where they’re trying to do something to each other, as in a wrestling match. Emerging writers too often use dialogue for exposition or backstory, or they fill the page with useless chit-chat. “If people agree, they don’t need to talk,” Fitch says. “Only generic people speak generically. If anyone could say it, no one should say it. Every line should be a million dollar line, or get rid of it.”

Extending the wrestling analogy, Fitch notes how speakers in narrative often circle like wrestlers, looking for an opening. That means they won’t always come in from the front. In good narrative dialogue, each person comes from a different perspective, bringing needs, wants and desires in relation to the others. Interrupting and trailing off are ways that characters are revealed. “Rarely do people get to finish what they mean to say,” Fitch notes.

She also reminds writers that dialogue is always part of a scene that demands fresh, specific details. “Set up the scene for someone to say something specific and interesting,” she recommends. “Set it up so you see who’s stronger. Who will the reader put their money on? There’s always a winner.”

Bad dialogue, Fitch says, marches down the page without regard for gesture, vocal tone, or facial expression. “Line after line of vocalization means you’re missing the interior world and the landscape,” she says. Beyond dialogue, the scene should include exposition plus ongoing description of the characters and their reactions. And don’t forget landscape. “As they speak, people still have contact with the physical world,” Fitch says. “When people stop speaking, there’s ambient sound.”

Fitch also reminds writers that dialogue is not deposition. Characters gain advantage by not answering, lying, playing mind games, or through counter attack. Like a good boxer, a character should never respond as her opponent expects. “If it doesn’t surprise, don’t write it,” Fitch says. Neither does dialogue have to be linear, Fitch reminds her audience. The narration can shift inside a character and back into the scene.

The best dialogue comes from people who know each other well, Fitch points out. Years of backstory are implied, and conflict is easy to raise. “The better you know each other, the less you have to explain,” she says. “Either the reader will keep up or she’ll be piqued to read on. Writing is seduction: reply obliquely; allow a mystery.”

For a spot-on example of Fitch’s dialogue principles, consider this from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a brief dialogue scene involving Rolph and his older sister Charlie, on safari with their father and his girlfriend Mindy:

Charlie and Rolph lie together under a palm tree. Charlie disdains the red Danskin one-piece she chose with her mother for this trip and decides she will borrow a pair of sharp scissors from the front desk and cut it into a bikini.

“I never want to go home,” she says sleepily.

“I miss Mom,” Rolph says. His father and Mindy are swimming. He can see the glitter of her swimsuit through the pale water.

“But if Mom could come.”

“Dad doesn’t love her anymore,” Rolph says. “She’s not crazy enough.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Rolph shrugs. “You think he loves Mindy?”

“No way. He’s tired of Mindy.”

“What if Mindy loves him?”

“Who cares?” Charlie says. “They all love him.”

These million dollar lines are simple, their value amassed by who says them and how they’re presented. They do everything good dialogue should. There’s landscape and gesture. We weave inside Charlie and Rolph and back out again. These kids don’t agree, and they don’t come in from the front – they riff on each other to get at what matters most to each of them. They disagree over their mother, and over Mindy, and over what love means when it involves their father. Charlie wins this round, getting in the last word on Dad. The scene illustrates beautifully how conflict can be rich and deep without necessarily being strung tight. The lines spoken by these children manage to simultaneously reveal their innocence and their depth of understanding.