Just exactly what is dialogue?
You’re writing this book. Why don’t you tell me?
I beg your pardon!
Who are you? – if you don’t mind my asking.
Well, since you’re the author of this book, I guess I must be a character you’ve invented. Either that, or I’m a would-be writer who’s been hanging around waiting for you to say something interesting.
What’s you name?
I must have amnesia, because I don’t think I have one. Why don’t you give me one?
I’ll think about it.
While you’re doing that, can I ask you a question?
Sure. Go ahead.
Okay – what’s dialogue?
Dialogue is conversation.
Like what we’re having right now?
If you already knew, why did you ask me?
For one thing, I didn’t know you were there.
Oh, sure! sure! You expect me to believe that?
Well, I didn’t know you were there yet.
You thought you were talking to yourself?
You’ve got it! I’m still not sure I’m not talking to myself.
Forms of dialogue 1: monologue and soliloquy
What do you call talking to yourself? Can you have a conversation with yourself?
Of course. It’s called a soliloquy. That is, it’s called a soliloquy if you’re not expecting an answer – in other words, if you’re just expressing your thoughts aloud.
Give me an example.
Okay, if you’ll leave the room.
Leave the room? How can you give me an example if I’m not around?
How can I give you an example if you are?
This is a real baffler.
Just leave the room. You can read the soliloquy afterwards.
All right, all right. Give me a second…
Format and punctuation 1
Are you gone? Is he gone? I heard the door close, so I guess he must be out of the room. Now, where was I? oh, yeah – I was going to think out loud. Let’s see. Who is this guy I’m talking to? It appears that he’s a character I’ve invented for the purposes of this book. He needs a name, it seems to me. And I’d best begin using quotation marks for our speeches so that people can keep tracks of who’s speaking:
“Well, people know who I am because my name’s on the title page of the book, but they have no idea who my partner is. In fact, he’s a ‘foil,’ a person who is used to further the purposes of another person, in this case, the Author. I’d best start another paragraph at this point because I’m going to change my focus. I won’t close my quotes at the end of this paragraph, though, because I’m going to continue to speak.
“I will, however, start the paragraph with quotes so that when my foil gets back he’ll know I’m still talking. What the hell, I think I’ll just call him Fred. That’s as good a name as any. I’ll call him back now, and then I’ll close the quotes on this soliloquy made of two paragraphs – hey, Fred! Come on back!”
Fred opens the door and sticks his head into the room. “Are you talking to me?” he asks.
He enters and closes the door behind him. “Since when is my name Fred?”
“Since two minutes ago.”
“Let’s see what you’ve written. I need to check out what a soliloquy looks like.” Fred bends over the Author’s shoulder and squints at the video monitor of the word processor. “Okay, pal, scroll it back so I can see the soliloquy.”
Types of fictional characters: personae
The Author scrolls back along the floppy disk file to the point in question and Fred reads for a moment, then stiffens. “A foil? I’m a foil? How come I’m not a protagonist, or at least an antagonist? Why do I have to be a foil instead of a character? That makes me a ‘second banana,’ right?”
The Author sighs – he can already see where this line of questioning is leading. Fred is beginning to be something of a pain and it can only get worse. The Author needs to regain control of his book. “You’re a foil because I need one. I don’t need a protagonist or an antagonist because this isn’t a story, it’s a Socratic dialogue.”
“I get the picture about the soliloquy, and I understand that a dialogue is a conversation, such as the one we’re having at the moment, but what’s a ‘Socratic dialogue?” Fred looks quizzically at the Author.
Uses of italics
The Author signs again. Brother, he thinks, this is going to get complicated. All Fred knows how to do is ask questions. Aloud, he says, “Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who taught his pupils by means of conversation – questions and answers. Since this is a Chapter on how to write dialogue, I figured the most appropriate way to proceed was by means of the Socratic dialogue. Any more questions?”
“Lots.” Fred gives the Author a big grin. His rather narrow features fold themselves into a lot of small wrinkles. His pale skin seems to be paper thin and very pliable. He has blue eyes, the Author notices for the first time, and rather sparse, almost colourless blonde hair. “I see you’re using quotation marks now to help keep things tidy.”
“And to allow me to put in descriptions and actions and things like that, so that the speeches can be immediately recognized as speeches.”
“I like the way you used italics too,” Fred says, “to show unspoken thoughts, not a soliloquy. They don’t do it that way in dramas, do they?”
Author. No. scripts look like this.
Fred. Yes, I see. And in between the speeches the playwright can insert stage directions and descriptions of settings and things like that, right?
(Fred moves across the set, stage right, sits down on a chair and crosses his legs.)
Author. Exactly. Plays aren’t meant to be read except by the people staging them, so the script is laid out in this way for the benefit of the actors and the other personnel of the drama. The audience can see the actions, the scenes, and so forth. They can see who is speaking, so there’s no need for quotation marks or descriptions of places, situations, people, and actions, as there is in fiction.
Fred uncrosses his legs and gets up again. “You know,” he says, “this is kind of interesting.”
“How do you do that?” the Author asks.
“Knit your brows.”
“Don’t ask me,” Fred shrugs. “You’re the Author around here. I don’t even know what ‘knit’ means.”
Author. (aside) If you did, you’d be a knit-wit.
Fred. What did you say? I couldn’t hear.
Author. You weren’t supposed to. It was an aside.
Author. (before Fred can continue) Don’t ask. An aside is a remark made by a character intended to be heard only by the audience of a play, not the other characters onstage.
Fred. I see. Can you have an aside in fiction too?
Forms of dialogue 2: asides
The Author sighs deeply. “Can you have an aside in fiction too?” he asks. Brother, this Fred character knows nothing at all!
“What are you mumbling?” Fred scowls.
“Sure, you can have an aside in fiction. Usually it will be printed in italics and not put into quotation marks so that the reader can distinguish it from a monologue. But to answer your other question, ‘knit’ means scowling, I think, but never mind.”
Fred makes an effort to stop scowling. “What’s the biggest difference between a fiction writer and a playwright?” he asks.
Narration 1: exposition
“The fiction writer isn’t limited to one or two writing techniques; rather, he may choose from a wide range of narrative devices. The playwright, however, is limited to the writing techniques of dialogue, monologue, or soliloquy, though on occasion a play (such as Our Town by Thornton Wilder) may have a narrator on the stage filling in the audience on portions of the narrative that take place ‘offstage’ – between segments of the drama – or on background information that the audience may need in order to understand the significance of the dramatic segments.”
“That’s called ‘exposition,’ isn’t it?”
“Right, Fred. Exposition is a major consideration in the essay, and it’s an important part of both fiction and drama. Exposition includes actions and situations that ‘took place’ before the story began but which led up to the actions of the story.”
“Is that all exposition is? Past actions?”
“No,” the Author replies, “exposition includes any and all background information requisite to the story.”
“Is it necessary to have a narrator who delivers the exposition?”
“No. Usually, especially in drama, the exposition is worked into the fabric of the narrative by the characters of the story through reminiscence or conversation.”
“That must be tough to do. What else can the fiction writer do that the dramatist can’t?”
Viewpoint 1: subjective/objective/dramatic
“The fiction writer can get his or her characters’ heads, show the reader what the personae are thinking. In other words, the fiction writer can have subjective access to character. The playwright has only objective access, so he or she has to use soliloquays or asides in order to verbalize thoughts or feelings. The playwright might even have to have characters address the audience directly under certain circumstances.”
“I see what you mean,” Fred says, a faraway look in his eyes. The Author surmises that Fred is visualizing a play.
“Don’t feel sorry for the playwright, though,” the Author admonishes his foil. “Although it may at first glance seem that the dramatist is more limited than the fictionist, in fact that’s not the case. In some ways he or she is less limited because a playwright can put characters into what appears, for instance, to be a real room. The fictionist would have to describe that room. And we see the characters physically in a play – their clothes, actions, colouring; we can hear the nuances of their voices. The fiction writer has to choose various descriptive techniques that would enable one to convey these things to the reader. The dramatist can simply get on with the narrative, which is the reason few plays utilize a narrator. A narrator can slow things down, and the essence of drama is action – dramatic action, and that’s true for fiction as well.”
“I’m beginning to catch on.” Fred gets up and begins to pace the room. “Still, both the fictionist and the dramatist have the narrative in common, don’t they?”
Fred stops and stares at the back of the head of the Author, who ignores him and goes on typing.
“Gosh, you’re clever!” Fred says.
Diction 1: fancy words
The Author thinks he detects a slight sneer in Fred’s voice, so he turns to look, but Fred’s demeanour is impassive.
“My ‘demeanour is impassive!?’ What kind of language is that?” Fred asks.
“You’re right. It’s a slip in the level of diction of this piece. I’ll try not to do it again…” the Author holds up his hand when he sees Fred’s mouth begin to open “… and we’ll talk about diction later on.”
Forms of dialogue 3: monologue – an example
“That’s fascinating,” Fred says, “but you know what you haven’t done?”
“You haven’t given me an example of a monologue.”
“A monologue is half of a conversation. It’s a speech to a character who is presumed to be present, though a listener may not be evident to the reader. Here is a whole story written in the form of a monologue.”
“A whole story?” Fred sounds incredulous.
“Yes, and it’s going to get us into, among other things, the question of narration – when is a narrator not a narrator? The speaker in this story is the mother of a severely retarded child. Her speech will characterize her and even give us background material – her class, her marital situation, her hopes and fears and desires.”
“Are you trying to tell me,” Fred asks shaking his hand, his hair flopping down over his eyes, “that in this story speech is everything?”
The Author nods. “Everything. And not even all of speech, just one side of the conversation. Now, imagine that the speaker is standing in her kitchen doorway welcoming a neighbour who has just returned from vacation – by the way, Fred, we’re not going to need quotation marks because the speech does not pass back and forth between characters”:
Oh, hi, hon! Come on in! When did you and Harry get back! Come in and sit down – the coffee’s all ready, see? A fresh pot on the stove. Funny I didn’t hear your car come in next door last night. I must’ve been busy with Timmy – honestly, he’s been driving me crazy lately. I wish he could hear, at least, so I could get through to him.
So tell me all about it – where’d you go on vacation? How long’s it been, now? Only two weeks? Seems like it’s at least a month. I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Jim’s no company at all – he’s either watching TV or at a bar, or out bowling with the guys or fishing – but I don’t have to tell you. Lucky you! You had Harry all to yourself for two whole weeks! Oh, well, sure, to yourself and the kids. I bet they were out in the woods all the time while you stayed with the camper, right? Oh, sure, you and the girls. Still, I bet it was nice.
What’d I do? Not much, let me tell you. But you know, I saw something on TV the other night that just made my eyes open up like cat food. Oh, ignore him, that’s just Timmy again. I give up trying to figure out what ails him. Let him cry. It’s all he does all the time anyway. I’m about at the end of my rope. Maybe Jim’s right – it’s probably time to put him in a home or something. I can’t cope any more.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah, the TV. I was watching a rerun of “Sixty Minutes” the other night. We never watch that show, but we saw everything else that was on last fall, all reruns, so I watched it. Jim wasn’t home, just me and Timmy. Honestly, hon, let me tell you, it was the most amazing thing I ever saw in my life – no, really, the most amazing. It was all about these retarded people, so of course, on account of Timmy, I was interested. But you never saw such retards in your life!
There was three of them, and they were special, because each one was a genius somehow, besides being dummies. Don’t look at me like that! I’m telling you the truth. Write CBS if you don’t believe me. They called them “idiot servants,” or something like that. You heard of that? Really? Well, I never did.
The first one was really stupid-looking. He had this big moron grin, and his eyes looked empty – like Timmy’s. but what he could do with his hands! See, he took wax – canning wax, it looked like, and he moulded it into little statues of animals – horses mostly, but other things too. My eyes nearly feel out of my head! They were perfect – I mean, really perfect! Somehow, they took these perfect statues and made a mould out of them, I guess, and then poured metal into the mould and made statues, so he had help, but they were selling these things for hundreds of dollars! God, I wish Timmy could do something like that! Could we use the money.
So, anyway, when the announcer asked this dummy how he did it, he answered, “I ‘member,” and pointed at his head! And when the announcer asked how he could remember, he said, “I smart.” Imagine that, “I smart!” About as smart as a bedpost.
The next one wasn’t as good – all he could do was remember dates. What’s so great about that? Well, he could remember any date in the entire history of the world, and as far forward as you wanted to go! No. I don’t mean he knew history, or what happened on a certain day, but I do mean the day of the week – Monday or Tuesday or whatever, and the date.
But if he was alive on a certain day, he could tell you the weather of that day! Besides having this little calculator in his head, he had a perfect memory! Excuse me just a sec, hon – I’m gonna go give Timmy a bottle and change his diapers so I can have a little peace. Imagine that, a bottle and diapers, and he’s seven years old! It’s like having a baby forever. I’ll be right back.
There, that didn’t take long, did it? He’s quiet at last. What a relief. Look, I’m sweating under the arms and on my forehead, and it’s barely seventy degrees in here.
So, anyway, he just sits there and answers these questions the announcer throws at him. But when he asks the dummy to multiply two times three, he can’t do it! This retard looked more or less normal, not like the other one, with his mouth gaping open and slobbering down his chin. But still, not normal, you know what I mean? And when they ask him how come he can do all these things with dates, this one says he’s smart, too! I had to laugh, or I would have if I wasn’t so damn mad. Here I am, sitting there looking at these dummies on TV! On TV! Dummies! Jesus. I got to wonder who was dumber, them or me for watching them. God knows I ought to be an expert at it.
But it was the third one that was the most amazing of all. This one wasn’t just a dummy! Oh, no. he was more like Timmy, only even worse. Not only was he a moron, but he was blind, too. Timmy’s deaf, but it’s close. But that’s not all – he’s retarded, he’s blind, and he’s got cerebral palsy! Born with it.
Now, you’re not going to believe what I tell you, but it’s true anyhow. I swear, it’s the most amazing thing I ever saw in my life – saw with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears.
They interviewed this lady who took care of this vegetable, and that’s just what he was at first, a vegetable. He just laid there on his bed, she said, and he didn’t do anything. Not a thing. But one day this old lady – she’s old now, I don’t know how long she was taking care of the dummy – gets it into her head that if she buys a piano – a piano! – and puts it beside his bed, maybe something will happen.
What’s the chances of that, do you suppose? I mean, chances of getting an idea like that, first of all, and then, second, something happening? Don’t look at me like that! I’m not making this up. Call up CBS and ask them, or ask around the neighbourhood – somebody else must’ve saw the sow. So anyway, she buys this little piano and puts it beside his bed, and it sits there for I don’t know how long.
Then, one night, when her and her husband are in bed, she wakes up because she hears this beautiful music coming from somewhere. So help me. Come on, don’t look at me like that, I swear to God – cross my heart! She rolls over and she says to her hubby, “Did you leave the radio on?” “No,” he says, so she gets up to see what’s going on – I guess he does too – and they go trailing off up the hall to this vegetable’s room, and they open the door and turn on the light – there he sits, on the edge of his bed, I guess, with these fingers all floppy on the keys, playing something like Liberace plays!
The rest of the show is about this idiot servant giving concerts. He even begins to talk, which he never used to do. And he says he can do these things because he’s got a good mind, too. A good mind! Never had a lesson in his life, and he plays like Liberace, Oh, Jesus, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if Timmy could do something like that? maybe it would be worth it, then, all the agony.
Don’t touch me, okay? I’m sorry. I’ll be all right. I’ll just use a napkin. There. Well, anyhow, when Jim comes home, I tell him all about it. He’s half in the bag, and he thinks I’ve been hitting the juice! At first he laughs, and then, when I keep on, he slugs me – gives me a slap that throws me half across the room! And I know I’m gonna have to do this all by myself.
Just wait, I’m getting there. I’ll tell you what I did. The next day I left Timmy by himself in his crib for a couple hours – what’s he going to do? He’s not going anywhere. All he can do is cry, and if there’s nobody around to hear him, then there’s nobody, because he can’t even hear himself. I took the bus down to the mall. I was just about to go into the music store to get Timmy a guitar or something – I know, I know, it was stupid – probably turning into a retard myself by now, but all I could think about was that damn piano. Anyway, like I said, I was just about to go into the music store when I realize what I’m doing and stop dead in my tracks.
“How’s he going to hear to play a guitar?” I ask myself. “That’s even worse than cerebral palsy.” And I can’t think of what to do at first. But then my eye happens to catch a sign across the hall – “Art Supplies,” it says. It’s a hobby store. That’s when I get my bright idea. Maybe I’m a servant, too. I go in, and I buy a little easel and some paper and some watercolours and brushes.
Well, I’ll cut it short. I brought it all home and set it up beside Timmy’s crib. I sat there for a while, showing him how to do it – beside the crib – I keep hoping. I had to patch it together after Jim saw it and got mad, and I had to Scotch-tape some of the paper where it got torn, but it’s still in there and nothing’s happened. Nothing’s going to happen, either, except…
I can’t tell you, but I got to tell somebody. Jim never looks into Timmy’s room, but he finally did last night. He saw it and got mad and said he was tired of coming home and finding out that I been wasting his money again. And he was getting tired of coming home at all to that kid in there, that retarded squash laying around in a crib forever. Who needs it? Who needs a wife that all she can do is give a man a thing like that? And she won’t even get rid of it, give it away to a hospital – no, all she can do is sit around and watchit drain money out of his wallet.
And then he beat me again – a good one this time – that’s why I’m wearing these dark glasses for breakfast. Yeah, I know you knew, but now it’s said I feel better. And I hope I’m going to feel better still, but it’s hard.
So when he’s through with me, and he goes out again, I drag myself into Timmy’s room, and I lift him up to his feet in the crib, and I hit him. Gimme that napkin. I beat him as hard as Jim beat me. No, you can’t see him. I don’t want you to see him. That was last night – that’s why Timmy’s crying all the time this morning. Jim’s not been homeyet, not since he took off around midnight, and I’m afraid of what he’s going to do when he sees the TV – that goddam TV, and all the glass laying around the living room floor.
©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973