Some writers adore writing dialogue. Characters leap off the page, verbal weapons in hand. Some writers are naturals at it – each character has a completely different voice, inflection, accent, use of words. For others . . . well, given the choice between writing dialogue and spending a night on Alcatraz, they’d be packing the sleeping bag.
But no matter what, if you’re a writer, you can’t avoid dialogue.
When you’re writing a story – be it fiction or nonfiction, a short story or a novel – there are building blocks you have to include, or else it will all fall apart. Things that not only provide your story with structure, but breathe life into it, make it come alive. Possibly the most important of these is dialogue.
Plot? Sure, we need it. But let’s face it: unless you’re James Patterson, you’re hopefully writing fiction that’s more character driven than plot driven. And dialogue is one of the most important ways our characters leap off the page. It tells us, more than description, more than backstory, more than interaction with others, who these people are. Where are they from? Do they have an accent? Do they mispronounce certain words? If so, why? Do they use regionalisms? (Example: a friend’s grandfather lives in Tennessee. He asks “You wanna Coca-Cola?” You say, “Sure!” He says, “What you want? We got Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper . . .”) And along with that, how’s their diction? Is their speech liberally peppered with idioms? Do they use African-American Vernacular English? Or is the prim, proper effect of boarding school evident in every sentence?
In short: dialogue should tell us nearly everything we need to know about your character.
But. It can also provide so much more! Through dialogue, we should be able to see how they interact with each other. Do your characters have nicknames for each other? Do they reference jokes and incidents from their past that even you, the author, don’t quite get? When do we sense antagonism? And for whom do they feel it?
Dialogue can provide a sense of the characters lives prior to this point in time. It can tell us about their relationships. It can tell us how others see them.
One of my new obsessions is the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Haven’t seen it? You must. If you drool over 1950s fashion (me!), you must see it. If you love comedies (me!), you must see it. If you like to be flabbergasted by how women were treated in the 1950s (me, apparently!), you must see it. And if you don’t know how women were treated in the 1950s, this show shall be your education!
In Season 1, Midge Maisel is left by her husband, for a woman with no discernible brain cells. So Midge decides to become a comedienne. She’s very good at it. But it’s 1958. She’s 26 years old. She has two children, overprotective parents, and no income. I’m seven episodes into the first season, and bang my head against something (sometimes the table, sometimes the cats . . .) every time Midge’s parents, especially her mother, makes remarks about how she ‘has’ to get her husband back, and her father gives her a curfew. At twenty-six! (This clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uetOWf7jU2Q)
The dialogue, though! There is a reason this show has won so many awards.
For starters, the two halves of Midge’s life – the proper Jewish housewife who shops at Neiman-Marcus, and the abandoned woman who gets drunk and does totally improv comedy laced with profanity (and, at times, nudity) – are delineated neatly, and nowhere more so than through the dialogue. Midge’s manager, Susie, is a streetwise alley cat (think an adult, jaded, f-word-dropping, Oliver Twist who never got adopted), while Midge’s father is a maths professor and her mother seems to only leave their Riverside apartment to go to her synagogue and her psychic.
For another thing, almost every line sparkles. It’s witty, it’s fast, it’s a current that carries you through every single scene, and every single episode. It’s what dialogue is supposed to do, and it does it in a way that is both hilarious and biting.
But even among this incredible deluge of dialogue, there are lines that rise above the rest. For me, the pinnacle of these lines was in Season 1, Episode 5. Midge, tired of living with her parents and having a curfew, has gotten a job at the makeup counter at a department store. The next morning, she announces this to her parents.
(For a short clip of this scene, start watching at :54 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adG3j9n5fl8.)
For the next thirty seconds or so, her father bombards her with questions. But for me, the kicker, the one that made me both howl with laughter and scream in frustration, was this one:
“If it rains, you still have to go in.”
This one line suddenly rises above all the hilarious one-liners her father throws at her – utterly ridiculous statements like, “And they’ll pay you? In money?” and “You’ll need a bank account” – to suddenly reveal multiple levels of what’s really going on here.
1.) There’s obviously the overprotective dad thing going on, evidenced by Midge’s patient acceptance of the litany. But . . .
2.) Think about what this line says about Midge’s father. About how he sees Midge. What does it say about him? Does he really think she’d rather quit her job than get her Neiman-Marcus heels wet? Is this a patronizing line from a male chauvinist pig? Or is it something else?
3.) And think about what this line says about their relationship. He doesn’t even know she has a bank account. What does he know about his own daughter? And is anything he thinks he knows accurate? Can we extrapolate 26 years’ worth of relationship from this one line?
4.) And now let’s take it one step further. What does this line say about Midge? She’s 26. She married at 22, straight out of college. Never had a job. Never needed one. But even if you didn’t know any of that, what would this one line say about her, and her life up until this point? Does he ask this question because he’s insulting her – or because he truly thinks she would stay home rather than go out in the rain? And does he think this due to past experience?
5.) And when we put it in context of the entire conversation (go watch the very short clip, I beg of you, start at :54), is her dad happy she has the job? Does he think she can actually do it? Is he trying, in his own way, to be encouraging? Is he trying to undermine her confidence, or bolster it? Does this conversation potentially signal a turning point in their relationship?
Yeah. So this one line – again, out of thousands of fantastic ones in this series – was the one that made me hit the Pause button and listen to it over and over. It hit me so hard, made me think on so many levels. And that’s what dialogue should do. It should make us think. It should stay with us, haunt us, confront us days after we read or hear it. It should stay with us.
It should say something more.