Writing Great Dialogue

satin bowerbird

satin bowerbird

Writers are bowerbirds. We observe the world around us intently and are often found eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. When we come across something that piques our interest we snitch it when no one’s looking.

My nest is my writer’s journal. I like to collect fragments of conversations that show aspects of character, or suggest possible conflict or plot. I’m always on the lookout for quirky words and phrases and the interesting ways people have of putting them together.

Last week I came across Kenneth Fearing’s brilliant poem, Love, 20 cents the First Quarter Mile. When I stopped laughing, and also cringing at his appalling narrator, I wrote the poem in my journal because it’s a perfect example of great dramatic dialogue.

The dialogue has purpose. It reveals character, moves the plot forward and supplies important information. Often it does all three at the same time.

Conflict is established in the first paragraph,

the narrator’s character is clearly exposed through what he says and how he says it,

we learn about the nature of his girl, although we don’t hear a word from her,

their dysfunctional relationship is cleverly revealed,

a possible future for the hapless couple is suggested,

a back story or past is revealed…

all through dialogue.

As in all great writing the reader is asked to form her own opinion about the characters and the situation. The tone of the poem suits the content. It’s highly conversational and there’s no jarring formality or stilted syntax.

Here’s the poem. Enjoy it.

Love, 20 cents the First Quarter Mile
By Kenneth Fearing

All right. I may have lied to you and about you, and made a
few pronouncements a bit too sweeping, perhaps, and
possibly forgotten to tag the bases here or there,
And damned your extravagance, and maligned your tastes,
and libeled your relatives, and slandered a few of your
friends, O. K. ,
Nevertheless, come back.

Come home. I will agree to forget the statements that you
issued so copiously to the neighbors and the press,
And you will forget that figment of your imagination, the
blonde from Detroit;
I will agree that your lady friend who lives above us is not
crazy, bats, nutty as they come, but on the contrary rather
And you will concede that poor old Steinberg is neither a
drunk, nor a swindler, but simply a guy, on the eccentric
side, trying to get along.
(Are you listening, you bitch, and have you got this straight?)

Because I forgive you, yes, for everything. I forgive you for
being beautiful and generous and wise,
I forgive you, to put it simply, for being alive, and pardon
you, in short, for being you.
Because tonight you are in my hair and eyes,
And every street light that our taxi passes shows me you
again, still you,
And because tonight all other nights are black, all other hours
are cold and far away, and now, this minute, the stars are
very near and bright.

Come back. We will have a celebration to end all celebrations.
We will invite the undertaker who lives beneath us, and a
couple of boys from the office, and some other friends.
And Steinberg, who is off the wagon, and that
insane woman who lives upstairs, and a few reporters, if
anything should break.

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12 Responses to Writing Great Dialogue

  1. Sue. says:

    Karen I adore this poem and relate to it whole heartily, as I’m sure many can.

  2. Maree says:

    Hi Karen, thanks for sharing that wonderful poem. I laughed out loud, as you said you did and i’m in awe of the talent of Kenneth Fearing for being able to portray so much in so few words. I love that it remains purely in his point of view and couldn’t help but imagine what she would be thinking.

  3. Hi Maree. I’m glad you enjoyed the poem as much as I did. I agree that the single point of view is brilliantly handled. Interestingly, I read the poem and expected her pov to be the same mine, but you don’t know, do you? Maybe I just hope she’ll bail out.

  4. Diana Threlfo says:

    Karen, I also love Kenneth Fearing’s poem, its somewhat black humour, and how much is revealed so cleverly. I’d love to know how she’d react to the narrator’s narcissistic overtures and his need to have the final word.
    Your blog though, has prompted me to start using my journal more consistently! Thank you so much for that.

    • Hi Diana. I’m pleased you liked it. It might be fun to write a poem from her in reply. That way we are in no doubt about whether she falls for his non-apology apology or if she is wiser than that. Keeping a writer’s journal is necessary for me because I have such a bad memory. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I agree, Karen, dialogue can be a fantastic vehicle for a story, when done well. Thanks for sharing this with us, and for your own thoughts on the craft. Hmm, trying to be eloquent with brain fog isn’t the easiest – but I’m sure you get the gist, and realise that I enjoyed the post 😉

  6. Brilliant piece of work.
    Thank you for sharing.
    AnElephant is happy.

  7. Yoli says:

    Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to a T.

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