Last night, when I came home from meeting my eleven week old nephew for the first time (so small! so soft!) and after I had did what I was supposed to do for work, I was flipping through the television channels. On the local PBS station, I watched Sally Field open a screen door and step out on to a long farmer’s porch. I ended up watching the last hour of Murphy’s Romance, a 1985 film with Sally Field and James Garner in a May-December romance.
I gushed over the movie. The dialogue is so good. As Roger Ebert said when it came out, “Much depends on exactly what Emma and Murphy say to each other, and how they say it, and what they don’t say. The movie gets it all right.” He gave it three out of four stars.
Since I only saw the last half, I’ll need to go back and watch the entire thing. But, what I liked most about the movie was the authenticity of the place and the people. I don’t know exactly where the film takes place but I’ve lived in similar towns, where the people speak at a slow pace and a slight drawl. Their words are deliberate and measured. They don’t get too excited about much.
Dialogue in itself is an art. And, only by writing really terrible dialogue can we start to write conversation that matters, that sets tone, and doesn’t bore the reader. Something that comes up again and again in the writing groups I’ve been a part of is that beginning writers put the entire conversation into their story. Something like:
“What’s up?” Jimmy said.
“Hey Jimmy, how’s it going?” John asked.
“It’s going,” Jimmy said. “How about you?”
“Oh, just fine. How’s work?”
“You know, same ol’, same ol. How is your job going?”
“Well, it’s a job.”
Yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s unimportant. Nothing about that would really move the story along, right? As Ebert said in his review of Murphy’s Romance, it’s “how they say it, and what they don’t say.” To get those intricacies correct in a short story is hard (maybe it’s easier with a novel because you have more time to show who your character is but I don’t know; I’ve never written a novel).
As a writer, I find dialogue some of the most difficult pieces of a story to write, precisely because it depends so much on the intonations, pauses, and facial expressions. Dialogue is not just the words spoken. I have a hard time making sure I get the pauses correct when I’m writing dialogue. How much description do you write to get the tension or longing or anger right?
One of the techniques I use to write better dialogue is to start in the middle of a conversation, rather than the beginning:
“You never even considered me, did you? It’s Memphis all over again.”
“I don’t have to explain myself Abigail.”
“Oh, of course not. Not the righteous Barlow.”
“Get a hold of yourself woman. We’re not at one of your acting classes.”
This immediately makes the dialogue more interesting. Without knowing who the characters are or what the issue is, there’s already tension. We know there is a history between these characters. We know Abigail may a bit of a drama queen or Barlow is a self-involved, self-righteous asshole. But, it’s a thousand times better than the dialogue between Jimmy and John above.
The other technique I use is to write my dialogue and then act it out. Thankfully, I live alone and do not share walls with other people. I feel a little silly when I do this but it helps tremendously with cadence. I can also hear when the dialogue feels inauthentic or unrealistic.
One of the best pieces of dialogue from Murphy’s Romance is the final scene. Murphy rides his horse into Emma’s stable and walks outside. Emma comes out and walks toward Murphy:
“Good evening, Murphy,” Emma says
“Good evening,” Murphy responds.
“Going be a lovely night, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is.”
“Did you have a nice ride?”
“Yes I did. It’s going to be a handsome moon tonight.”
“Think it’s going to rain?”
“No, it’s dry this time of year.”
“Are we talking about the weather?” Emma asks.
“You are,” Murphy says.
“That’s not what I want to talk about.”
“Take another tact, Emma.”
“I don’t know what tact to take.”
“I’ll help ya. Separate the men from the boys, Emma. I show some wear, I don’t deny it. But if the fruit hangs on the tree long enough, it gets ripe. I’m durable, I’m steady, and I’m faithful. And I’m in love for the last time in my life,” Murphy says.
“And I’m in love for the first time in my life,” Emma says.
“So,” Emma says, pausing briefly. “Stay to supper Murphy?”
“I won’t do that unless I’m still here at breakfast.”
“How do you like your eggs?” Emma asks.
It’s perfect. The slow, dull conversation is wet with anticipation. And the pauses, if you see the movie, make this dialogue even better. Go watch the movie. It’s a good lesson in dialogue. And a sweet romance too.