It’s become a cliche of writing workshops that, in good dialogue, the characters talk past one another. But how? For a primer, pick up any book by Walter Mosley. His most recent is Little Green, the latest in the Easy Rawlins detective series.
You can read an excerpt from the novel, here, at NPR’s website.
How the Novel Works
There are two easy ways to get characters talking past one another. The first is to give them different ends they want to achieve in the scene. The other is to provide the characters with different levels or forms of information or knowledge. (Of course, a third method is to give the characters vastly different personalities.) All of these methods are on display in these two lines from Little Green:
“I’m lookin’ for somebody for Raymond,” I said when the laughter subsided. “Evander Noon.”
“That’s just the seesaw action,” Jo replied. “You lookin’ for yourself.”
Method 1: Notice how the first speaker, Easy Rawlins, makes his goals clear. But Jo doesn’t give a clear answer. She wants to help him but in a different way.
Method 2: Jo claims that Easy has another, deeper goal, one that only she knows. She possesses knowledge that he doesn’t. As a result, the dialogue takes on the manner of a common person talking to a sage.
Method 3: Easy is a detective, and Jo is a voodoo queen. Thus, he is direct, and she speaks in code. Their styles are determined by their personalities.
As a result, the characters talk past one another. They can’t help it. They’re different types of people with different goals and levels of information.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s trying writing dialogue using the three methods described above.
- Create two characters with vastly different personalities, jobs, or situations. Think about how their speaking style would be affected by the job or situation. For instance (relying on broad types), motivational speakers are intensely positive and assertive. Cops tend to speak as if everything they say has been said a thousand times before, which it has. What would happen if you put a cop and a motivational speaker together in a scene? Their styles would probably clash.
- Give the characters different goals for the scene. The easiest version of this is a scene involving a couple: one person wants to go out and the other wants to stay in. But there’s another way to approach the method. Make the characters’ goals different in terms of type. So, in the scene with the couple, one person wants to go out, and the other wants to leave. The goals become fundamentally different.
- Give the characters different levels or types of knowledge/interest. Imagine if someone has a broken toilet and so calls the plumber. The person wants a particular task to be done, but when the plumber shows up, all he wants to talk about is the metaphysical implications of cracked porcelain. Their interests and knowledge-bases will clash in the dialogue.