Friday, July 22, 2011

An Important, if Obvious Realization about Dialogue

OR: A Realization Courtesy of Edward Albee
I'm writing a novel. Sometimes just saying that phrase impresses people, but really, hang on to your impressed face until the novel's done--or even better, hang on until it's done AND good. 
Anyway. One element I've been struggling with is dialogue. I mean, I can put two characters in a room and have them talk and their words will sound fairly realistic--not too wooden or strained. But there was still something bothering me about several of the conversations in my book. I'd read the scene, tweak a few words, delete something obvious, move something around, and it'd be better, but still not quite right.
This summer, I'm helping out in an American Literature class at Texas State and the kids are reading Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It's one of my favorite plays, but I hadn't read it for years. Re-reading the play yesterday I realized what was wrong with my dialogue and what was so right about Albee's.
 (Here's where the obviousness might start for you fellow writers out there, but I was blown away.)
 Too often the dialogue in my novel is about something. My characters are discussing plot points, important facts about their past or their present, they're chattering away about things that should be remembered by the reader.
 Now, back to Albee.  Virginia Woolf really doesn't have much of a plot--George and Martha have a party, Nick and Honey comes over, everyone's ruined forever. That's pretty much it. And that frees Albee to focus on the subtext, the hidden struggles that the characters are going through. The really dramatic stuff, the plot-heavy stuff, happened long before the play actually starts. 
What we have are characters (George and Martha especially) who have already gone through the dramatic stuff, and now they're just trying to live their broken lives. This lets Albee build characters and tension without being a slave to the mechanics of plot and explaining present action.

I think that's why Albee's dialogue is so good and razor-sharp. It's not about anything! The only purpose of a good chunk of the dialogue is just to reveal characters. Here's part of an extended sequence that opens the play:
[Martha looks around their living room.]
Martha: What a dump. [pauses] Hey, w-what's that from? "What a dump!"
George: How would I know?
Martha: Oh, come on, what's it from? You know!
George: Martha…
Martha: What's it from, for chrissake?!
George: What's what from?
Martha: I just told you. I just did it. "What a dump!" Huh? What's that from?
George: I haven't the faintest idea.
Martha: Dumbbell.
George and Martha go on about this movie for several more minutes. Martha says it's a Bette Davis movie, George says it's called Chicago, Martha says he's an idiot and that Joseph Cotton was in the movie, and so on. 

It's beautifully written, but it's not about anything at all. This exchange does absolutely nothing to move the plot forward. But what it does is help establish the relationship between George and Martha, and it conveys the contours of that relationship to the reader in a much smarter way than if they were fighting about who ruined whose life first. 

This is something that I'm not doing in my dialogue often enough. I should be trying to write dialogue that doesn't have the pressure of moving the plot forward, but that simply tries to show the reader something important about the characters and their world. Let the plot points and history take care of themselves (like in Act 3 of Virginia Woolf) and let the characters just chatter.

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