Dialog in Streets and Pages

I was at a training in the city all last week. While walking to meet family for dinners and to get to classes, I encountered a lot of people.


Without fail, the homeless people talked to me. Not asking for money or anything like that. We’d be standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, and we’d talk. ‘How’s it going?’ they’d ask. Or, ‘how’re you doing today?’ Or a simple ‘hello’. Or comments on the weather. We’d chat until the light changed and then go our separate ways.

The people dressed nicely passed by in a hurry. On their way to the local bars or shops, intent, I assume, on their next errand or next stop. Even people wearing the lanyard that identified them as attending the same training I was in didn’t speak. No eye contact, not even a simple ‘hello’.

Why? The hurry? The responsibilities on their minds? None even commented on the weather while waiting at the cross walk.


Here at home we mainly talk about rain

Thinking about that led to all sorts of musings on society, but also made me think about dialog in writing.

Think about the last book you read. Was there any dialog that went along the lines of ‘hi, how are you?’ ‘fine, how are you?’. Or ‘nice weather we’re having’.

If there was, an editor somewhere failed. Because that kind of dialog, whether in a book or standing chatting with a homeless person, is nothing more than polite filler. It’s an acknowledgement of the person near you, a sort of polite verbal nod that doesn’t mean anything more.

As a side note, someone once told me while in line at a grocery store, that if it wasn’t for weather we’d have nothing to talk about.

In books, that filler dialog shouldn’t be present because it doesn’t move the story forward, or develop character arcs, or add anything to pacing, tension, or structure. You don’t notice its absence when reading, either, because subconsciously you know it’s filler. You’d probably find it annoying if it showed up in a book. You’d probably start thinking, ‘come on, get on with it’ because you’re invested in the story.

In real life though, we should notice when it’s absent. Why couldn’t those nicely dressed people at least have said ‘evening’ as they passed? And I’m not making an over-all generalization here, meaning one or two homeless people did not speak and one or two nicely dressed people did. Absolutely across the board, only homeless people chatted with me.

Of course those who know me personally could make a solid argument (and probably be right) that it was me attracting the types of conversation. I’m not exactly one of those high-maintenance, fancy dress types.


I dressed a bit nicer for the training

But still, the clear-cut lines about who chatted with me and who didn’t, surprised me. It was nice to return home to mountains and snow, and locals who will stand in the street in all types of weather, and talk about everything and anything.

Including the weather.

When Characters Come to Life

I had a procedure done yesterday. I left the doctor’s office sore, a bit blue, and with bandages on my nose. From there I ran errands including a stop at a local butcher shop. There, a young man at the counter greeted me with ‘Cool! Did you get a tat?’

Immediately cheered up, I said no, that I’d had a biopsy. His response was ‘Dude! I’ll pray for you!’

When I got home and told my husband, his response was ‘Cell.’

My god. He’s right. Cell lives.

I can’t even say that I met this young man at the butcher’s before, and modeled the character based on him.

One of my characters, one that a lot of readers like, is living and breathing and working at a butcher shop. Pretty amazing.

Below is my favorite ‘Cell’ dialog. Florence is an elderly woman in the beginning stages of dementia. Rachel is her granddaughter, struggling with how to care for Florence. In this scene, Florence wandered away from home, which is a mountainous region of narrow winding roads and forest. Cody is the protagonist. This bit is from The Memory Keeper.

‘Cell leaned on the counter while Florence sat on it, swinging her slippered feet, drinking SoBe from the bottle and watching as Cell worked his faithful companion, the phone.

“But I don’t understand where the cord is, dear.”

“See, that’s the way cool thing,” Cell said, and jumped upright as he saw Rachel. “Hey! I was just calling you.”

“Granny, what are you doing?”

“She was hitchin’, dude,” Cell said.

“You promised you wouldn’t tell,” Florence said.

“Sorry, man. Forgot how much Rachel, like, scares me.” Cell moved back as Rachel reached the counter. “I just asked her if she needed a ride. Being neighborly, you know? I mean, she’s an old lady. Old ladies shouldn’t have to walk.”

“You were hitchhiking?” Rachel’s voice dropped, becoming quiet and almost calm.

“Well dear, technically, no. I wasn’t standing exposing an ankle or anything. I heard a car coming and I flagged it down. I was a tad scared to be honest. I don’t recall leaving the house. I’m afraid I wandered away in one of my less lucid moments. Did I frighten you badly?”

“Not at all,” Rachel said. “I’m used to having people I love just disappear.”

“Rachel,” Cody said, wanting to somehow thaw the ice in Rachel’s voice. But Rachel overrode her words, turning to Cell.

“And you didn’t think it was strange to find Granny in her nightgown? You didn’t consider taking her back home?”

“Is that what she’s wearing? I thought it was, like, some kind of old lady dress.” Cell pushed tendrils of black hair behind his heavily pierced ears.

“Oh my god!” Rachel pulled at her hair as if to keep her hands from reaching across the counter. “Where’s your brain?”

“Hey, chill! What’d you expect me to do? I mean, she’s an elder you know? You’re supposed to respect your elders!”’

And now I know what Cell’s next job is going to be. Though he’s vegetarian. This could be fun. He’ll lecture all the customers.

Art or Device?

I just finished The Round House, by Louise Erdritch. The writing soared, the characters tugged me into their world, and the ending left me hanging and wanting so much more. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Ms. Erdritch, and it’s safe to say it won’t be the last book by her that I devour. Depending on dialog, that is.

The author’s lack of quotation marks around dialog stymied me. My eyes are so trained to catch those tiny mouse-turd cues, that I stumbled over their absence. I use ‘mouse-turds’ on purpose because once there were some in a book I read, and I thought they were quotation marks in a weird spot.

I found myself reading along, captured by beautiful writing, only to suddenly realize I was reading dialog. Then I’d have to back up to pick up where people started talking, and work my way back to where I was interrupted and pulled out of the story.

If the story had been less powerful, I would have stopped reading simply because I dislike being taken out of the story world. The book was very bumpy to read because of that.

I wondered why the author chose to not use quotation marks. A dislike of the shift key? Some sort of artistic point I’m too dense to pick up? A signal that I was reading literature rather than just a very good story? Those questions also pulled me away as a reader. Which made me then wonder, when is something artistic, and when is it simply a device to make someone stand out, or to prove you can break a rule and get away with it?

A while back I talked about reading books by Elly Griffiths, who writes in present tense, and how skilfully she handles that. So well, in fact, that her ‘device’ never once pulled me out of the stories. Present tense isn’t a style of writing one sees often, and it could easily have failed. I’m glad it didn’t because I really do love her series.

It’s the same with this book. Whatever the author’s reason for not using quotation marks, The Round House was still a very good story. Unlike with Elly Griffiths though, I’m not sure I’d read another book without quotation marks around dialog. It was simply too disjointed, having to continuously back up and re-read. Interestingly, when I read reviews of the book on Amazon, I didn’t see any mention of this. Well, I also didn’t read all of the thousand comments, so who knows. Someone else might have missed the mouse-turds, too.

What do you think makes a writing device succeed or fail? Why do you think authors choose to create a story that breaks the expected rules? And do you like to read books that step outside the traditional format?