Mister Slow-Reaction Man: or How Good Dialogue is Like Bowling
By Joshua Henkin
What makes for good dialogue? It is, on the face of it, hard to say, and the question puts in me in mind of what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography. “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” Ultimately, though, this isn’t a satisfactory answer for the student writer, and so I’d like to try to be more specific. I’d start with the fact that good dialogue feels spoken; it rings true, in other words. But even that is deceptive, because what feels spoken in dialogue isn’t the same as what feels spoken in life.
Obviously, there’s a kind of bad dialogue that insufficiently mimics actual speech. No person would actually say the words, and what the writer has offered instead is shameless plot advancement masquerading as dialogue. I call it the Honda commercial dialogue. Daughter: “I bought the new Honda, Dad.” Father: “Oh, you mean the Honda with the bucket seats and the four-wheel drive and the engine that can go from zero to sixty in seven seconds and that costs only $24, 999?” That clearly won’t do.
And yet there’s another kind of dialogue that’s bad for the opposite reason: it too perfectly mimics actual speech and, in so doing, bores the reader. In fact, it sounds like the unedited transcription of an actual conversation. It mimics reality for reality’s sake, when fiction isn’t about reality for reality’s sake; it’s about reality for the sake of getting at something deeper; it’s life shaped into art; it’s a distillation of life.
For the sports fans among you, you might think of it this way: dialogue is to actual conversation as ESPN’s Sports Center is to the actual game. It’s the highlights of actual speech. On the most practical level, I often see in my graduate students’ work some excellent dialogue encased in too much connective tissue. It feels like an interview with Connie Chung. Try doing this. Revise and revise your story until it feels as tight as it should be, and then force yourself to take out an additional twenty percent of the words. This is a helpful exercise in general, but it’s particularly helpful when it comes to dialogue because it helps you make your dialogue more glancing, which in turn makes your characters come more fully to life. If dialogue is useful for anything (and it certainly is) it’s as a means of characterizing. In fact, I’d say that the only purpose of dialogue is to characterize; anything else it does along the way is inadvertent and shouldn’t get in the way of its role in characterization.
But how, practically speaking, might you improve your dialogue beyond cutting as many words as you can, and beyond doing the obvious, which is listening to people speak, both in life and in literature, and beyond reading and reading and reading, which is really the writer’s greatest teacher. One helpful way to regard dialogue is to think of it like bowling. To get a strike in bowling, you don’t want to hit the center pin head-on because then you get a split. You want to put the ball in the pocket, just off the center pin. That’s what dialogue is like. It needs to be glancing, slightly off-center. Another way to think about it is to consider that when two people are having a conversation they aren’t always entirely listening to each other. They are talking to each other, but they’re also talking past each other. You say three things and I respond to only one of them—often the one that’s least important to you. Or I say something and you respond to something else I said a little earlier but that you didn’t respond to at the time. It’s like that old Saturday Night Live skit—“Mr. Slow Reaction Man.” That’s what dialogue is like, a subtler version of Mr. Slow Reaction Man. Which brings us back to cutting out the connective tissue in dialogue. Look at how Tobias Wolff, Charles Baxter, and Lorrie Moore write dialogue. They are all masters at writing the spoken word, and each in his or her own way recognizes how characters talk past each other, how they’re all, to one degree or another, Mr. Slow Reaction Men and Women.
Also, remember that how a character says something is far more important than the content of what the character says. Take a look at Jayne Anne Phillips’s story, “Fast Lanes.” It’s a road story about a woman in her early twenties who’s living hand-to-mouth, sleeping with strangers, waking up with the shakes in the middle of the night. She learns her father is sick and she needs a ride home, from Denver to Virginia. Someone named Thurman offers her a ride. There’s an air of flirtation between the two characters, but also a hint of menace; the narrator barely knows Thurman, after all. They discuss the terms of the arrangement. Suddenly the narrator says, “‘Thurman, is this a kissy-poo number?’” It’s a brilliant line, clearly the most memorable one in the scene, and its characterizing effects are considerable. In one of my classes, we spent twenty minutes on this line alone. I think it’s clear how every word in the sentence has a specific and pointed effect. In the most basic sense, the narrator is asking Thurman whether he’s expecting her to sleep with him. But “Thurman, is this a kissy-poo number?” is so different in tone and effect from “Thurman, do I have to sleep with you?” or “Thurman, are you expecting us to engage in sexual intercourse?” or any of a slew of other versions of this line that it’s unfair even to compare them. The tenuous balance of power between the two characters, the way “number” places the power in Thurman’s hands even while undercutting that power, the way “kissy-poo” is both flirtatious and emasculating, the way even the word “Thurman” at the beginning of the sentence adds tension by creating the slightest pause—all this has a profound impact.