My husband, Steve, is a stocky guy—and very fit. Recently, taking our dog, Louise, for a walk through the neighborhood, we came upon a guy about our age leaning against a pickup truck.
“Hey!” we said, approaching. “Nice evening.”
He nodded, then glanced at Steve. “Play?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Center. High school.”
“College,” the guy responded.
A brief discussion of football ensued.
“How in the world did you know what he was asking you?” I asked when we moved on.
Steve gave me a look like, duh, what else could “Play?” possibly have meant?
I love this for the way it illustrates how dialogue works, how much can be carried in a glance and a word. Real people talk in a kind of shorthand that is very difficult to capture in a story.
“Naptime?” anyone who’s ever been a mother might say to a mom with a cranky toddler. Meaning, I see in your face, your body language, the tone of your voice that you’re the one who needs a rest. I’ve been there myself. It won’t last forever.
“You’re wearing that?” a father might say to his daughter, a wife to her husband, one best friend to another—meaning something completely different depending who’s saying it to whom and the context in which it’s said, but absolutely clear…if the writer has set the scene up right.
Consider the endless possibilities for what the simple word “Again?” could mean, spoken by one person to another.
What is not said in dialogue defines an exchange similarly to the way negative space in sculpture defines what you see as much as the solid, made shape.
So if you struggle to write dialogue that rings true (and what writer doesn’t struggle with this?), listen for the shortcuts that occur when real people talk to one another, jot them down, and ponder how they worked—and why.
Send the best of them my way! I’ll make a list and post it on my website.