The Dialogue Conundrum
All writers face it. No matter if you write novels, essays, twitter feeds or screenplays. Novel writers of course have the luxury of limitless ‘space’ that often is able to include conversations with ‘the self’. While screenwriters are hammered with mantra’s like ‘voice’, ‘white space’ and ‘less is more’, even though most development execs admit to skimming dial as a method to lower the height of their to read piles. And no matter what format we write in we are all told to give every character a different voice on top of our extraordinary ‘writer voice’. It’s enough to make your dialogue do nothing but scream (and suck in the process). The bottom line is the dialogue that is best, has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with story.
What’s a writer to do? First, (my one and only note on ‘how to’ structure here and only because it is a huge pet peeve in my coverage advice) if you are writing a novel, when a different character speaks it is a line break. (thank you.)
Onward — my best advice to any writer is read. A lot. You will quickly learn to recognize affective dialogue that moves the story forward. And that is your only goal in writing. In fact I got the idea for this post during my bedtime story session. I have a stack of my bookshelf that doubles as my nightstand and I read something every night, no matter where I’ve been or when I have to get up. Lately, the top of my nightstand is a compilation on Irish writers and of course it includes the play, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Yes, it is a play not a novel or screenplay but lets face it, live theater is the best bridge and inspiration for stories of all kind. Hello, Shakespeare?
Anyway, this particular play is known for its monologues almost as much as Will’s HAMLET. This play kept me up and turning pages even though I know the story! It is a timeless example as to how to engage your audience and tell an interesting, yet basic tale. The snippet below is just before the third act break, after the ladies realize there is no such person as Ernest, the man each claim to be engaged to, here is the chatter between the men that claim to be their individual ‘Ernest’s. The importance of this earnest dialogue is its simplistic non-sensical ability to move the story whilst entertaining the audience. This masterpiece is 100% dialogue, laden with conflict and subtext that amounts to pure entertainment that makes you forget your listening to blather. Learn from it and your dial will no longer be a burden to your format or story.
Jack. This ghastly state of things is what you call Bunburying, I suppose?
Algernon. Yes, and a perfectly wonderful Bunbury it is. The most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life.
Jack. Well, you’ve no right whatsoever to Bunbury here.
Algernon. That is absurd. One has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that.
Jack. Serious Bunburyist! Good heavens!
Algernon. Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth you are serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.
Jack. Well, the only small satisfaction I have in the whole of this wretched business is that your friend Bunbury is quite exploded. You won’t be able to run down to the country quite so often as you used to do, dear Algy. And a very good thing too.
Algernon. Your brother is a little off colour, isn’t he, dear Jack? You won’t be able to disappear to London quite so frequently as your wicked custom was. And not a bad thing either.
Jack. As for your conduct towards Miss Cardew, I must say that your taking in a sweet, simple, innocent girl like that is quite inexcusable. To say nothing of the fact that she is my ward.
Algernon. I can see no possible defence at all for your deceiving a brilliant, clever, thoroughly experienced young lady like Miss Fairfax. To say nothing of the fact that she is my cousin.
Jack. I wanted to be engaged to Gwendolen, that is all. I love her.
Algernon. Well, I simply wanted to be engaged to Cecily. I adore her.
Jack. There is certainly no chance of your marrying Miss Cardew.
Algernon. I don’t think there is much likelihood, Jack, of you and Miss Fairfax being united.
Jack. Well, that is no business of yours.
Algernon. If it was my business, I wouldn’t talk about it. [Begins to eat muffins.] It is very vulgar to talk about one’s business. Only people like stock-brokers do that, and then merely at dinner parties.
Jack. How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
Algernon. Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
Jack. I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.
Algernon. When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins. [Rising.]
Jack. [Rising.] Well, that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way. [Takes muffins from Algernon.]
Algernon. [Offering tea-cake.] I wish you would have tea-cake instead. I don’t like tea-cake.
Jack. Good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden.
Algernon. But you have just said it was perfectly heartless to eat muffins.
Jack. I said it was perfectly heartless of you, under the circumstances. That is a very different thing.
Algernon. That may be. But the muffins are the same. [He seizes the muffin-dish from Jack.]
Jack. Algy, I wish to goodness you would go.
Algernon. You can’t possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It’s absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that. Besides I have just made arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to be christened at a quarter to six under the name of Ernest.
Jack. My dear fellow, the sooner you give up that nonsense the better. I made arrangements this morning with Dr. Chasuble to be christened myself at 5.30, and I naturally will take the name of Ernest. Gwendolen would wish it. We can’t both be christened Ernest. It’s absurd. Besides, I have a perfect right to be christened if I like. There is no evidence at all that I have ever been christened by anybody. I should think it extremely probable I never was, and so does Dr. Chasuble. It is entirely different in your case. You have been christened already.
Algernon. Yes, but I have not been christened for years.
Jack. Yes, but you have been christened. That is the important thing.
Algernon. Quite so. So I know my constitution can stand it. If you are not quite sure about your ever having been christened, I must say I think it rather dangerous your venturing on it now. It might make you very unwell. You can hardly have forgotten that some one very closely connected with you was very nearly carried off this week in Paris by a severe chill.
Jack. Yes, but you said yourself that a severe chill was not hereditary.
Algernon. It usen’t to be, I know—but I daresay it is now. Science is always making wonderful improvements in things.
Jack. [Picking up the muffin-dish.] Oh, that is nonsense; you are always talking nonsense.
Algernon. Jack, you are at the muffins again! I wish you wouldn’t. There are only two left. [Takes them.] I told you I was particularly fond of muffins.
Jack. But I hate tea-cake.
Algernon. Why on earth then do you allow tea-cake to be served up for your guests? What ideas you have of hospitality!
Jack. Algernon! I have already told you to go. I don’t want you here. Why don’t you go!
Algernon. I haven’t quite finished my tea yet! and there is still one muffin left. [Jack groans, and sinks into a chair. Algernon still continues eating.]