Eddie Izzard once did a stand up routine about the difference between British and American movies. He describes a scene of a man walking in on another man counting his matchsticks. In the British version there is little said but much is understood to be happening beneath the surface. In the American version that Eddie describes, there is much swearing and the scene ends with a motorcycle chase scene and flying monkeys. This later version, hilarious as it is, is perhaps a tad over the top, but the point he is making stands. The British tend to under play emotion and the Americans tend to overplay action.
I bring this scene up because neither version of his skit really uses dialog to its full potential. It’s all conveyed with visual cues. In movies they can do that sort of thing, but with writing, conflict has to be communicated via dialog and description. According to many critics and editors, description has become less appealing for readers.
Robert B Parker said in an interview “Dialogue is easy and it chews up a lot of pages.”
Robert B Parker is a master of conveying conflict character and everything else through little more than dialog. For example the first scene of Perish Twice, Sunny Randle is talking with her sister about Sunny’s beloved dog:
“What kind is she again?” Elizabeth asked. “A Boston Terrier?”
“Bull Terrier,” I said. “Rosie is a miniature bull terrier.”
“I thought she was a Boston terrier.”
“You want to see her papers?” I asked.
“Oh aren’t you funny,” Elizabeth said.
In five lines of dialog he has essentially managed to convey the heart of what drives these two sisters crazy about one another.
Elizabeth starts the conversation off by getting the breed of Sunnys dog wrong. (You see later that this is normal for Elizabeth) Sunny instead of allowing this mistake to slide, corrects her sister.
Elizabeth’s “I thought she was a Boston terrier.” could be an attempt to smooth the situation over, or it could be an attempt to ignore the realty of the mistake.
Sunny is not willing to compromise on the facts, she is not going to let it slide and tries with a joke to halt the misapprehension. Elizabeth will not let Sunny have the last word on the subject and responds by trivializing both the fact, again not acknowledging what kind of dog Sunny has and the fact that the fact is important to Sunny, by acknowledging that Sunny has made a joke. Sunny lets Elizabeth have the last word.
These five lines of conversation manage to create tension, by showing that Sunny dose not in any way shape or form get along with her sister, and at the same time shows both Sunny and Elizabeth’s character. Elizabeth uses one up-manship to win a silly conversation and manages to dismiss reality when it disagrees with her world view and is unhappy when people or facts make her seem stupid. It is unclear if she started the conversation on purpose. Elizabeth does not have a sense of humor although she thinks she does.
The scene shows that Sunny does have a sense of humor, cares about her dog and is willing to stand up for things she loves. It also conveys that facts are important to her she doesn’t care what other people think of her and is not constrained to be socially appropriate. Although she draws lines (my dog is a miniature bull terrier) she will let her sister have the last word in a conversation because she doesn’t care about winning.
I think it’s important to check and make sure that every conversation in a story fulfills both of the things shown in the conversation above. Sure driving plot forward and conveying information are also important but if you focus on them and leave out character and conflict the conversation will fall flat.
I personally do not agree with Robert B Parker that dialogue is easy. If it were easy more people could do it well.