Dialogue

June 29, 2007
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DIALOGUE

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

July 2007

"Was it raining when you came in? "
—Shapiro

I’m in line at Macy’s waiting to return a frame someone gave me as a gift. (Why does everyone think a frame makes such a great gift anyway?)

The woman on line ahead of me says, “It looked like rain when I came in. Was it raining when you came in?”

“No,” I say.

“Well, it certainly looked like it,” she insists.

“Oh, then I guess it will,” I say because it all seems to important to her.

She cranes her neck to ask the man who just got on line behind me, “Was it raining when you came in?”

“Not yet,” he says, “but I can feel it coming. “Lumbago.”

Like a couple of tennis pros, they continue to lob the rain shtick right over my head, but still I have to hear every word-what the weatherman had predicted, how these days rain goes right through waterproof coats, a comparison of the rainfall so far this year with that of the previous one, and other dribble about rain. I want to cover my ears. Patience, I tell myself.

"I want to cover my ears. Patience, I tell myself."
—Shapiro

 

Finally, it’s my turn to explain to the refund person that, no, I don’t have a receipt because it was a gift. She harrumphs, but gives me the cash value of the frame-$4.78. I suspect it had been re-gifted, too.

Scratch one friend, I get out into the parking lot, to the vindication of the “rain people,” it begins to rain, a sluicy, juicy rain that goes right through my waterproof jacket. If only I hadn’t been bored to tears with the endless discussion of rain, I might have bought myself an umbrella.

". . .think about how that relates to writing and what a writer can do to make sure the dialogue he writes keeps the reader’s attention. "
—Shapiro

I get into my car. As my wipers make streaky arcs on my windshield, I think about my mother’s adage”Be interesting or be quiet.” And I think about how that relates to writing and what a writer can do to make sure the dialogue he writes keeps the reader’s attention.

The first thing that comes to mind is the proverbial spice of life-variety. A writer needs to keep up a kind of patter (forget any reference to rain) that draws the reader in.

". . . sometimes the writer may choose to use an exaggeratedly monotonous dialogue for comic effect . . . "
—Shapiro

There can be variety of subject matter, that is, going from the question of rain to a doom prediction of drought which can lead to a whole discussion of global warming or perhaps even germinate inside a writer’s mind, producing a sci-fi series such that involves environmentalism and the scarcity of water such as Frank Herbert’s classic-Dune. Of course, sometimes the writer may choose to use an exaggeratedly monotonous dialogue for comic effect or to delineate a character who is disturbed in some way or a character in an absurdist drama such as Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

"Punctuation can also be varied to produce interesting speech rhythms.. "
—Shapiro

Punctuation can also be varied to produce interesting speech rhythms. In the famous short story, The Fortune Teller, by the Brazilian writer, Joaquim Maria Machado do Assis:

In the street, men were shouting, dragging away the coach.

“There! Now! Push! That’s it!”

Notice how Assis captures the breathless efforting of the crowd by his creative punctuation.

Similarly, a writer can break a sentence to show urgency or build suspense in dialogue.

In Assis’ story, the fortune teller who reads the cards says, “The cards tell me…”

Camillo leaned forward to drink in her words.

Notice how the writer uses an ellipsis to show that the sentence has been interrupted–Three dots with a space in between. Sometimes an ellipsis is used not to cut off the sentence, but to show a pause or hesitation. “You said…um…that you’d do it.” An ellipses at the end of a complete sentence is followed by four dots with a space between them, the last indicating a period. . . .

"Sometimes an ellipsis is used not to cut off the sentence, but to show a pause or hesitation . . . "
—Shapiro

Dialogue can be clarified and enhanced by showing the speaker’s gestures, eg. “I know it’s going to rain because of my lumbago,” the guy behind me on line says, wincing and pointing to his shoulder.

Or perhaps:

“It looked like rain when I came in,” the woman says, narrowing her eyes at me with suspicion because I don’t seem to be as caught up in the deluge as she.

For more variety, the characters can have different accents, but watch out. Accents are tough on the reader. A reader won’t go on if you’re accents are difficult to read:

“Oi, mate, it does look like it moight rain, don’it?’

“Vots the matter vit you? An umbrella you couldn’t vit you?”

". . . if the dialogue isn’t interesting, let your characters fall silent . . ."
—Shapiro

And to build suspense or just make something last a moment longer between conversations, you can always write, “They fell silent for a moment.”

And, thinking again of my mother’s advice, if the dialogue isn’t interesting, let your characters fall silent for long moments. . . very long ones.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/

 

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