BY CARL R. BRUSH
“Wanna go to bed?”
“Not with you.”
“Wanna go to bed?”
“Would you pass the salt, please?”
You’ve certainly heard the admonition against writing “salt and pepper” dialogue; i.e., trivial conversation that doesn’t move your story. However, “salt and pepper” exchanges can be packed with action. As the above examples illustrate, you offload a truckful of character and situation clues without spending narrative-killing time on descriptions of a character’s inner feelings. They raise questions. Questions need answers, and the quest for answers creates suspense and dramatic tension that keeps a reader in that “can’t put it down” state of mind.
Is the “not with you” character, for example, spoiling for conflict, or just demanding an exit? Obviously the “pass the salt,” person prefers the indirect approach, but is it a stall to tease, or to decide to do or not to do, or to give “wanna go to bed” a chance to take the “no way” hint without a confrontation?
Sure, the reader needs more info, but not much. Names, setting, a sketch of voice tone or expression add context and background, but the right dialogue carries the action as nothing else can.
Or try this:
“Billie’s mother told me she spent three hours waiting for the doctor, and I told her she should get another doctor, but do you know what she said? She said she doesn’t trust another doctor and she’d rather wait for him than try to find anyone else, so—“
“I told her she could die in the waiting room and then would she still trust—”
“But you can’t make some people listen if they—”
“Mother, shut up—”
Completely trivial dialogue. But without a word about age, sex, hair color, dress, the reader gets beaucoup information about situation and relationship, and the scene gets momentum impossible to accomplish with paragraphs of background.
Elmore Leonard’s a master at this kind of thing. Check out this scene from his Killshot:
The Blackbird lay in his bed staring at the ceiling …
“I can’t hear you, Chief.”
“I’m thinking you’re low.”
“All right, gimme a number.”
“I like twenty thousand.”
“You’re drunk. I’ll call you back.”
I’ve left out Leonard’s background stuff, but it’s minimal; and you don’t need it to know there’s a deadly negotiation going on. No inner monologues or description of emotional response as the conversation proceeds, but the degree of action and character jammed into those few lines is more than enough to make me turn that page. How about you?
Finally, here’s a passage from my new release, The Maxwell Vendetta. See what you can do with dialogue without slowing the narrative with separate descriptive passages:
“Well, partner, you look like you been through it all and back again. What can I do for you—Bath? Drink? Girl? Name’s Rosie. From my hair, in case you hadn’t guessed.”
My protagonist, Andy Maxwell, has just endured a long walk across a desert, but you don’t need to know that to see that he’s pretty wiped out or to guess the kind of establishment he’s entered, and you even get a picture of his hostess just from her introduction of herself.
“How do you do? My name’s Andy. To Tell the truth, Rosie, what would please me most right now is a couple of steaks.”
“Two steaks? Not the size we have, Andy. You’ll never get ‘em down.”
“If I don’t, I’ll save it for tomorrow,” I said. “But I wager I will.”
“You really want to bet? How about double or nothing?” I shook my head. “Come on, take a chance.”
“I regret I’ve nothing to take a chance with, ma’am. The steaks and potatoes will be fine.”
“Shoot, partner, you’re no fun at all. All right, have a seat at a table. We’ll bring it up pronto. Want a shot while you’re waiting?”
“Just the food, I guess.”
“All right. I always did have a soft spot for someone down on his luck. It’s on the house.” She poured a water glass half full of whisky from an unlabeled bottle. “Don’t turn your nose up,” she said. “It’s free. Steak’s coming right up.”
Note that Andy’s diction is a bit stilted compared to Rosie’s, which indicates a few things about his background you’ll have to read the book to find out, but know that a character’s word choice is an excellent tool for conveying provenance. Note also that Rosie’s “Don’t turn your nose up,” gives us a reaction-description without interrupting the flow of the scene the way a separate paragraph might.
The point is that what you write about your characters’ deeds and words, counts for a whole lot less that what they actually do and say. And when their saying also becomes their doing, when their talk is their walk, you’ve got power in your prose and drive in your story you can’t get any other way.
Carl R. Brush is a former English and drama teacher who writes, travels and directs community theater. He’s had two musical dramas produced non-professionally, and his fiction has been published in a number of e-zines and journals. He’s currently working on a trilogy of historical novels set in and around San Francisco. The Second Vendetta was published by Solstice Publishing, and The Maxwell Vendetta released April 29. The third in the trilogy, Bonita, is currently in progress. Visit Carl at WriterWorking or find him on Facebook.