By Stuart Phillips
Late summer we transplanted thirty hosta from our front walkway, wheeling barrowsful to more welcoming spots in the shade. As my wife and I planned the new plantings, we went round and round with competing combinations before we realized that what she really wanted was a lavender hedge, and what I really wanted was something to plant and walk away. It took an hour to finally figure out that our “must haves” dovetailed.
That exercise in communication suggests one of my most vivid memories from my low-residency MFA—a memory which (oddly) does not involve a residency. Instead, I am pacing away my lunch hour outside City Hall in San Francisco, deep in the weeds with Phil Klay. He’s on the phone from New York, walking through my latest chapters; this month, we are working on how to write better conversations.
Obviously, there is a lot of advice about writing dialogue, from the mechanics of punctuation to dialogue tags to warnings against using small talk and excessive exposition. Those are valuable, but they simply polish the apple. After a semester I finally understood that dialogue is a tool to serve the conversation, and to get the conversation right you have to remember Phil’s Rule: “Both sides want something.”
We recognize that many conversations are, by their nature, transactional. We don’t often think deliberately about how our words, pauses, and inflections will help, or hinder, that transaction. As a writer, however, it will be invaluable. After all, your charge is to write “natural” dialogue that is completely unnatural, all contained within a conversation that flows stylistically and logically.
Start by simply getting the words down on the page, even if you have only an ephemeral idea of why the conversation is taking place. Then, put yourself in the point of view of one side. What does one hope to get out of the conversation? Love? Release? Simply being left alone? With that goal in mind, examine the flow of the conversation, from sentence length to word choice to action tags. This enables you to craft each side to do more than simply move the plot along. For example, I wrote a scene with a character who was agitated and confrontational. Upon reflection, I realized that what he was really seeking was forgiveness. By identifying what he wanted, I was able to revise the dialogue and action tags to have him melt, to see how his words were eliciting a reaction opposite what he wanted, and to let it change mid-stream to show him growing and reaching out.
Well-crafted dialogue serves many purposes. For example, in Ron Rash’s short story Dead Confederates, two men are grave-robbing.
Wesley flares his lighter and lights another cigarette.
“We best get back to it,” he says, nodding at the pickax in my hand.
“Don’t seem to be no we to it,” I say.
“Like I said, I’ll spell you directly.”
But directly turns out to be a long time.
This exchange, although brief, definitively establishes Wesley as a lazy leader and shows the digger as resentful but compliant. Wesley wants the coffin dug up. The protagonist wants help but would rather grumble and do the digging than have a full-blown confrontation. Interestingly, he doesn’t get what he wants. And that’s the thing—Rash wrote this knowing what each character wanted, but understood that it may end up that one, both, or even none are satisfied at the end.
As important as that is, since those lunchtime sessions I’ve come to realize that there is yet another side to every conversation—the author’s. Just as the participants each want something, so do you. Maybe you need a set of facts elicited in order to move the plot along. Or you want a character to show a certain emotion to aid in characterization. Regardless, your second task is to consider what you want from each conversation and ensure the contours of the dialogue serve that.
For example, Mick Herron’s Slow Horses has a scene with two co-workers (Min and Louisa) who meet by happenstance at a pub and share a pint. They discuss whether to raid their boss’s office for information:
“Yeah. Maybe. Or . . . .”
“Or maybe back to the office?”
“It’s late. There’ll be nobody there.”
“My point exactly.”
“You think we should . . . .”
“Check Ho’s info?”
“If Lamb knows anything, it’ll be on his email.”
Both considered this for flaws, and found plenty. Both decided not to raise them.
“If we get caught looking at Lamb’s email . . . .”
What do they want? They want to be spies again. Sentenced to the hinterlands of MI5 for whatever transgressions, they are sidelined in the search for a kidnap victim. And they resent it. You can see from the pace of the interchanges that they are winding each other up, getting excited about their quest. Moving the plot along. But, just as importantly for the author this exchange foreshadows a brewing relationship—after all, a certain level of intimacy is needed to complete each other’s sentences. A wealth of meaning from two column inches of text.
As to the mechanics, one of the ways I now approach writing conversations is to write a scene, then strip away everything except the dialogue. I read that and ask myself what each person wants, and does this “work” to show that? If not, I revise. And revise. And revise. So, yes, I realize that what I’m giving you is something that will make more work for you. I have to believe it’s worth it. Now, if I can only apply that to other aspects of my life.
Read Stuart’s other work here at Reckon:
Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at stuartphillips.work or on Instagram @deltawriter12.