Don McQuinn and I have mused about fiction techniques and writing practices since some time in the last century, usually in a Seattle watering hole or on Don’s porch, with a view of Puget Sound. This new series shares our conversations. Our discussion of dialog was over lunch at The Mark in Burien.
Don: After I did the last blog piece on dialog, it’s been on my mind a lot. I’m especially thinking about how to establish locale and character with dialog. For locale, you want to see where characters are to understand their situation, but you want to see it the way they see it.
I’m writing a scene to establish someone down on his luck is coming to Seattle for the first time. I want to contradict the usual grim/grey about Seattle. And I believe I want to do it with dialog—how exactly would that character see Seattle, and how do I reveal character and situation? In my case, I think dialog is going to be key.
I have to say that I think that it’s seldom I see dialog used to build character. We know that dialog should be used to advance the story. But I’m thinking about how to make sure that it’s also revelatory for the characters.
In my recent writing, I did what we all do: I got caught up in the exchange of ideas, and the positions of the characters. I’m using dialog to set the general “aura” of the book—its tone and locale. But now I’m looking at what I’ve written. The dialog has to be complete and integrated with everything that’s taking place, just like plot does.
Annie: I see dialog used for exposition a lot.
[Ed. Note: While reviewing this transcript, I’m longing to change this line to establish my character right away, since Don always establishes his character with the first words he speaks. However, my first words just served to provoke Don in this instance. So stet.]
Don: It’s an amateur mistake—lots of chatter. Worse, with a dozen or more characters, where all that happens is a cigarette is lit, the table is tapped, a guy picks his nose.
Annie: JK Rowling has so many cigarettes going in The Cuckoo’s Calling that I came away grasping for breath. But she does use the cigarette business to advance character and claim scene. A destitute person begs for free cigarettes and uses a cheap plastic lighter. A supermodel chain smokes, dropping butts in a Diet Coke can. Whatever you want to say about Rowling, she handles the business in dialog with telling character details.
Don: The Friends of Eddie Coyle* is the famous example of dialog. The critics raved about the dialog—and it is very good—but it didn’t do much for the story. The characters were already established before they speak. Dialog is used like David Mamet does—broken up the way people speak. But then carefully selected.
True speech rambles, it isn’t grammatical. There are idiosyncrasies. When you look at the page, you’ll see that—either the character’s idiosyncrasies, or the author’s. I had an agent tell me once, “Mac, every single body in your book grunts all the time.” I was so embarrassed, but everyone makes this mistake.
Annie: I’ve been in the middle of editing, and go back into the manuscript to search what I think is a unique text string, only to find that it appears several times. So I have to stand back and see what I’m doing that is just my automatic writing instead of unique character behavior.
Don: How you take advantage of dialog on the page is to identify idiosyncrasies for each character very early on. You have to focus on only two people in any scene—three stretches it. I’m advising now on material that contains large scenes with too many people. Such scenes just never work.
Annie: Yes, been there. In the middle of describing all the people in the scene, I start thinking: How do I get all but 2 or 3 out of here? Even when it’s 3, I need one to go off in the corner and shut up for a while.
Don: Oh yeah. Let’s list those tricks. First, get the extra people out of the room or out of the conversation.
Annie: Make sure it’s clear who’s speaking at a glance. And where they are standing in relation to each other. So they aren’t standing in thin air.
Don: Assign tags or speech pattern idiosyncrasies. Use these to establish character early, and then be consistent.
Annie: Open a draft page of dialog. Can you tell at a glance who’s talking?
Don: And ask why? Like I said, it’s a story, not a documentary.
Annie: I think many readers skim paragraphs of exposition, and then latch onto the dialog to see what’s happening, looking for a hook. So dialog has to ground people in the action.
Don: And then you’re back to what Elmore Leonard says he does: take out the part people don’t read.
“Don and Annie Hit the Mark” – A Story, in Dialog
“What will you have?” The waiter, though quite young, didn’t need to write down their orders.
“Salad and sandwich,” Don said. “Ham and cheese.”
“You changed your mind? No Reuben on rye?” Annie asked, pleased to remember his emphatic decision from ten minutes earlier. Sun glaring through the window at The Mark, she could still read his pursed smile.
“I’m allowed.” Don wrapped long, gnarled fingers around his coffee cup. “So you can’t write about meetings. There’s just too damn many people.”
“Yeah, I’m always looking to get the leftover people out of the scene.” She sipped at her Diet Coke, regretting her drink order. They say it’s bad for you.
“So I see a long meeting in draft fiction, I take a red pen through it.” Don tipped his coffee cup. Not yet empty. “Then I write in the margin, ‘After the debate, X was decided.’ Was decided. No one is ever responsible for anything in any damn meeting.”
“Like, ‘Mistakes were made.’” She drifted, didn’t finishing the thought, staring out the window. Twenty years of too many meetings, too many hours lost. No stories to tell.
“Meeting details? You’re writing a story, not a documentary.” Don’s eyebrows twitched. She turned from the window: a story was coming. “They sent me to school in Virginia for company-grade and field-grade officers—we’re all young officers. What do we know?”
The waiter hovered. “The salad and sandwich?”
Don pointed, one long finger indicating the space before him. The waiter deposited the sandwich. A bare burger appeared before Annie, who asked for mustard. No further “how does that taste?” requests interrupted the story.
“We had one guy.” Don tore into the sandwich. “He was selected from a special program. An aviator?” His voice lifted. Unvoiced from a Marine: you know what that means?
“Oh yeah. I know those fly guys. More energy than any other humans.” Annie sawed at her burger. The “medium, please” request turned out to be a knife-and-fork chore.
Don said, “This guy would head out every night after class. Straight to D.C. to party every single night.”
Annie fiddled with her dill pickle—do you use a knife on something that big when you’re in a decent restaurant?—remembering when “party every night” was actually humanly possible.
Don set down his fork, which meant that this story took both hands to tell. “Come morning every day, I’d run to work. I have my uniform stashed there. I’d shower, dress. Step out to the staff room, ready for that day’s lecture.”
She shoved aside the wrongly ordered Coke, wishing she could be as organized again as that: run, shower, everything ready. Things used to be that precise. The loss of that—twenty years of interminable meetings—just result in a single humorous story like Don could always tell.
Don waggled a finger. “There was the guy in the staff room, every damn morning, with a cold can of Sprite, sometimes Mountain Dew, pressed over his eye. Hung over like a goat. Then another cold can, pressed over the other eye.”
Oh god. Annie sipped at water. Never could make it through a meeting hung over.
“In the lecture,” Don gave up his plate to the silent busboy, “he was asleep by the time the lecture started. I swear to it. I heard him snore.”
“That was me in the conference room,” she said. “People thought I was asleep for the first forty minutes, but I was famous for coming back with an answer in the last five or ten minutes.”
“This guy would ace most every test, after sleeping through the damn lecture. He could skim and retain. He had—what do you call it? Eidetic memory?” Don shook his head, chuckling at the flyboy ace. “The guy looked at any manual, however long, and then aced the test. No one minded, coz he was such a great guy.
Annie, laughing, gave up her plate to the hovering busboy. “Yeah, that was me too, back when I could stay up at night.”
Don reached for the last of his coffee. His hand paused over the cup, the faintest tremor. “He died the next year in a training accident. Damnest thing. They never explained it.”
She looked down at the table, bare of all but crumbs, the sunlight glaring off the Formica.
“Damn shame,” Don said. “Damn shame.”
Annie: I chose a snippet from the new ebook edition of Don’s The Path of Mistakes, Book 4 in Don’s Moondark Saga. I feel I know these guys. I can hear their different voices and glimpse the tentative status issues between them.
Don: This passage from Annie’s Trebuchets in the Garden touches every aspect of the novel: the past, the present, the characters and their relationship to each other, and the personalities of the characters. More than that, it illuminates the time period through simple, declarative mentions of currency, sword play, and the rock-solid belief in God, devil, and man’s position with each.
* Dennis Lehane calls George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, “The game-changing crime novel of the last fifty years…. Open any page of this book and you will find vast riches of the spoken word. The characters here love to talk; they’d probably talk to a chair.”
Don McQuinn is retired Marine. His novels range from an examination of the Vietnam war (Targets) through thrillers (Shadow of Lies), speculative fiction (The Moondark Saga), and general fiction (Light The Hidden Things). He’s won awards and been on best-seller lists. He’s still learning his craft.
Annie Pearson is the author of Nine Volt Heart and The Grrrl of Limberlost, in the Rain City Comedy of Manners series from Jugum Press. She’s also the author (as E.A. Stewart) of the Accidental Heretics series, historical fiction set in the early thirteenth century in Spain and southern France.