"Once you use those quotation marks, it's not you the writer talking, it's you the writer listening."—Albert Ríos
There is a crossover moment during the best of my writing sessions, when the characters start saying things that I didn't expect them to say. They become particularly surly, or curious, or challenging, or flirtatious, and oftentimes quite inquisitive about the other characters. They ask personal and awkward questions, or challenge other characters' view of themselves or the world (and certainly of my world), or tell a story that seems to come from the core of their being, a core that I didn't know was there. To an athlete hitting jump shots or scoring goals, these moments are known as "being in the zone," and I think most writers understand these moments, where we're less writing and more "channeling" the story from somewhere deep internal or external from us.
On the other hand, to non-writers, who we try to explain these moments to, we get strange, suspicious looks, and sometimes a reply such as "Tom, you do understand that these characters aren't real, correct?" And of course, the answer, in those best of writing moments is no, I don't know that they are not real. They seem more real than the real world. And the dialogue especially seems more real than any conversation we've had in the previous weeks.
I want to quote from "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, one of my favorite short stories, and always a touchstone for me when I'm trying to rediscover "the zone." An older brother is trying to dissuade, gently yet consistently, his younger brother Sonny, from pursuing a career as a jazz musician:
"Well, Sonny," I said, gently, "you know people can't always do exactly what they want to do—"
"No, I don't know that," said Sonny, surprising me. "I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?"
"You're getting to be a big boy," I said desperately, "it's time you started thinking about your future."
"I'm thinking about my future," said Sonny, grimly. "I think about it all the time."
A number of intriguing writing elements jump out at me. Not the least of which is that Baldwin breaks the long-standing fiction workshop rule of not using adverbs to describe dialogue. Gently, Desperately, and Grimly guide us wisely through this conversation, and instead of illuminating the obvious, they reveal the hidden and complex. Baldwin also makes use of italics, which is also often a workshop no-no for dialogue, yet here it creates a sense of inflection and emphasis, just as we'd hear during a real argument. Notice how Sonny's No and ought rush in to the fight, to take up the fight against the narrator's want.
I also notice a number of other smart elements. Instead of answering Sonny's important and essential question "What else are they (we) alive for?" the narrator changes the subject, pointing toward a future where, presumably, being alive seems a luxury. And then there is the poetic, effective repeat of 'thinking' and 'future' in Sonny's final response, indicating that while the narrator may have won this particular battle, the longer struggle between these two brothers is far from over.
It's also a familiar conversation, one that we recognize perhaps less between brothers and more often between parent and teenager. Teenager: "I want to follow my dreams." Parent: "I respect that, but it's not realistic."
It's a small example from a story (and writer) filled with wonderfully insightful moments like these. Great dialogue can do many, many things, and should do at least a few for every line:
1. Create tension, 2. Reveal character, 3. Advance the action. And I also want to note that in 1st person stories (such as "Sonny's Blues"), dialogue is the only place where other characters truly communicate their voice and worldview.
And of course one of the most enjoyable elements of great dialogue (for reader and writer) is that we get to say things that we might never say in real life. In a real world where we feel more and more pressure to conform, sanitize, and avoid making mistakes through our spoken language, our fictional characters get to poke, prod, defend, question, reveal, lie, offend, and perhaps most importantly, say the exact wrong thing for the wrong situation, and in this way our fictional characters and worlds open up, push the action forward, reveal truths, and most importantly, reconnect reader and writer to the playfulness and power of the spoken word.