Dialogue is almost too easy

The novelist James Jones on his fear of evading problems in his stories:

Dialogue is almost too easy. For me. So much so that it makes me suspicious of it, so I have to be careful with it. I could find myself evading problems of true expression because dialogue’s so easy for me to do. There are many important issues and points of subtlety about people, about human behavior, that I want to make in writing, and it’s easy to evade these—or do them superficially, do them halfway—by simply writing good dialogue. And it becomes increasingly easy as I get to know the people better. But good dialogue just isn’t enough to explain the subtler ramifications of the characters and incidents that I’m trying to work out now. Not realistic dialogue, anyway. Perhaps if you used some kind of surrealistic dialogue, but then it would read like a dream episode. It wouldn’t be real talk. For instance, it’s obvious enough that in almost any conversation things are happening to the people in the conversation that they do not and cannot express. In a play it is possible for a good actor to imply that he is thinking something other than what he is saying. But it’s pretty slipshod and half-assed, because he cannot convey what he’s thinking explicitly. In prose, and especially in the novel form, this can be done. If the man is using a subterfuge, it can be explained explicitly, and why. Actually, in life, conversation is more often likely to be an attempt at deliberate evasion, deliberate confusion, rather than communication. We’re all cheats and liars, really. And the novelist can show just how and why we are.

(via The Paris Review.)

5 thoughts on “Dialogue is almost too easy

  1. the most common mistake i see when i read other work, when people send me their chapters to review, is with dialogue, especially when two people are talking and the writer has them constantly addressing each other by name.

    when only two people are talking, they don’t need to say each other’s names because there’s nobody there to be confused with. if it’s just me and you, i don’t need to say your name. you know i’m talking to you, but too many writers use the names anyway.

    another thing about names in dialogue is the emotion. for example, if i’m not happy with you, i’ll use your name. if everything is cool, no name. if i ask you a question, and you don’t know the answer, you might just say, “i don’t know.” but if i’ve asked that question six times, and you’ve told me six times already, you’re not going to be happy with me, and you’re going to say, “rich – i don’t know.” something like that. the name is a stressor that indicates how you’re being more direct and less happy with me.

    another mistake with dialogue is that we very often don’t speak in complete sentences.

  2. “Actually, in life, conversation is more often likely to be an attempt at deliberate evasion, deliberate confusion, rather than communication.”
    So true!

  3. I love writing dialogue, and it helps to read it out loud to get a sense of how natural it wsounds as well as the rhythm of the voice–which is unique to each individual human being as it should be with each individual character.

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