In NARRATIVE & DIALOGUE [AN AUTHOR’S VIEW] I talked about dialogue, but I gave only a few examples. And these were taken out of context. I mean, I took just one character’s response, but did not show it as part of the conversational exchange between two characters (or more). The examples were one-sided responses. They didn’t show why the character responded the way they did. Didn’t show the dynamics of conversational exchange. I’d now like to show the context; the conversational exchanges in more detail.

Here’s an exchange between Cardinal Maffeo Barberini and Galileo Galilee, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderful novel Galileo’s Dream:

‘I wish I had been able to bring enough of them with me to leave one with you as a gift, Your Eminence, but I was only allowed a small trunk for baggage.’

Barberini nodded at this awkwardness. ‘I understand,’ he murmured as he looked through the glass. ‘Seeing through yours is enough, for now, and more than enough. Although I do want one, it is true. It’s simply amazing how much you can see.’ He pulled back to look at Galileo. ‘It’s odd – you wouldn’t think that more could be held there for the eye, in distant things, than we already see.’

‘No, it’s true. We must admit that our senses don’t convey everything to us, not even in the sensible world.’

‘Certainly not.’

They looked through it at the distant hills east of Rome, and the cardinal marveled and clapped him on the shoulder in the manner of any other man.

‘You have given us new worlds,’ he said.

‘The seeing of them, anyway,’ Galileo corrected him, to seem properly humble.

‘And how do the Peripatetics take it? And the Jesuits?’

Galileo tipped his head side to side. ‘They are none too pleased, Your Grace.’

Barberini laughed. He had been trained by the Jesuits, but he did not like them, Galileo saw; and so Galileo continued, ‘There are some of them who refuse to look through the glass at all. One of them recently died, and as I said at the time, since he would not look at the stars through my glass, he could now inspect them from up close, on his way past them to Heaven!’

This charming exchange between Galileo and Cardinal Barberini concerns Galileo’s occhialino or telescope. Well his occhialino was the prototype telescope, and was eventually named so. This particular exchange begins with Galileo and ends with him. But the conversation is about Galileo’s occhialino, which Galileo had wished he could have brought as a gift for the Cardinal. Galileo indicates his respect for Cardinal with ‘Your Eminence’, showing deference to someone like a Cardinal. Galileo did not see himself as equal with the Cardinal, though he was clearly more intellectual than the Cardinal.

The Cardinal, on the other hand, sees Galileo’s frustration at being forced to travel light, causing him to carry just one occhialino, and no more, as an awkwardness. Something Galileo had to bear. Seeing it as an awkwardness is fascinating. The Cardinal is quite content to see through Galileo’s occhialino, though he’d like one for himself, to own. Then he discusses the experience of seeing the distant objects up close and being amazed at it. And Galileo confirms the nature of reality, but also suggests humans need to admit this aspect as something occurring in the ‘sensible world’. As if there is another world that may be less sensible. And the Cardinal agrees.

However, this is the world Galileo has found himself in. A contrary and disbelieving world when it comes to the nature of reality. Galileo contests the beliefs of the Church to his detriment. The Cardinal reminds him of this by asking what the response of the Peripatetics and Jesuits was to his occhialino and how it could reveal worlds unseen to the naked eye. Barberini appears to dislike the Peripatetics and the Jesuits, and picking up on this, Galileo indulges in a moment of levity and tells Barberini about something he’d said to a Jesuit about unseen worlds, ironically unaware that the Jesuit was near death’s door.

Here’s an exchange from Reciprocity (2012) Parts 1 & 2, between Ellura Strinarr and two agents sent by Alton Rhizikh to hire Strinarr to find something for him:

Eaddeann, the shorter of the two and stocky one, looked at her truffle specimens and carefully examined them. He soon asked in a skittish voice: ‘Are these the Terfezia truffle?’

She watched him roll a small dark object the size of a small potato with the fingers of one hand. He felt the leathery texture, and smelled the pungent aroma. His nose must have twitched as he smelt a strong earthy aroma because he rubbed his nose. Did it remind him of something from his childhood?

‘Ah, no; they’re not,’ Strinarr said. She looked quickly but cautiously from the short stocky one, Eaddeann, to the thin and tall, Deygaan.

Deygaan looked at Eaddeann, and Eaddeann looked at Deygaan. And then they both looked at Strinarr.

Well, well, well; they’re after the Terfezia, Strinarr mused in sun-peaking-through-thick-cloud realisation.

The truffle’s reputation has spread far and wide. The few that have been found have quickly gained a reputation as being the crème de la crème of the truffle kingdom. But how that had happened, she was at a loss to know. She hadn’t bothered to search for them herself; where they might be found is a long way from home. Besides, she was content with her market niche, which had grown over the years. She’d been enticed on many an occasion, though, to go in search of the elusive gold, so nicknamed locally because of their colour; the colour of gold.

Deygaan, the taller of the two, spoke quickly, said: ‘We are after those truffles. Yes. Do you know where we can acquire them?’ He added as quickly: ‘We,’ gesturing swiftly at Eaddeann and himself, ‘are willing to pay handsomely for them.’ Quickly glancing at Eaddeann, who’d done the same with what looked like a nervous twitch, and then returned his gaze to Strinarr.

‘Oh, I see. Well…’ she began, nervously laughing and clapping her hands together. The sound carried aloft by a gentle breeze. Thinking quickly, she didn’t want them to think she couldn’t get them, hastily said: ‘I don’t have any of the Terfezia, at the moment.’ She hoped they’d believe that she could get them as if they could simply be gotten in Amal’s beautiful countryside. If the price is right, anything was possible.

In this quaint exchange between the two agents and Ellura Strinarr, a lot is revealed about the agents’ goal. They have been tasked by Alton Rhizikh, the eventual antagonist in the story, to set her up for a nasty fall. Strinarr is simply a means to an end, and Rhizikh is unconcerned about the moral cost to him of doing this thing. He wants to get even with a foe. The agents have been directed to get Strinarr to find Terfezia truffles. The Terfezia is a new type of truffle and rumoured to possess mythical properties. Rhizikh is in the biomedical industry, and has the resources to ascertain whether the mythical properties are real or not. And so the short, skittish agent, Eaddeann, asks the proverbial question to ascertain whether Strinarr is presently showing the truffles they seek. The Terfezia. The question triggers some odd antics from the agents which both amuses and puzzles Strinarr. It’s so comical she doesn’t think to dig deeper into their want of Terfezia truffles and how they happen to know her name (not shown in this particular exchange).

Deygaan, the taller and more senior agent, tries to recover from the awkwardness of being both knowledgeable and ignorant of the thing they seek (revealed in an earlier exchange), and fumbles until he gets it right. Strinarr, ever the merchant, is less concerned about who they really are and where they’re from when money is placed on the table, if she can acquire the Terfezia truffles. Never having searched for them herself, the price is right for her to risk all and go get them. Her decision to find the Terfezia plays right into Rhizikh’s plan and her eventual dismay.

Conversational exchanges reveal something about the characters, their goals, motivations, desires and fears, which may not be shown in the narrative. Among other things. Unless, of course the author can show this in the narrative. But if the author does this, it is no longer dialogue.

Getting the dialogue right is tricky. But it stems from knowing the characters. If the author doesn’t know her characters well enough, she can’t anticipate the kinds of questions and responses the character will make when the time comes. In the conversational exchange between Ellura Strinarr and Rhizikh’s agents, imagine what kind of exchange it would’ve been if Strinarr didn’t know anything about truffles, though it’s allegedly been her business since she was twenty-one? What kind of conversation would have occurred if she wasn’t so mercantile about her truffle business? Or Galileo’s discussion with Barberini about the nature of reality? Galileo doesn’t know anything about the nature of reality, so can’t participate in that discussion. Knowing the characters well enough will allow the author to postulate conversations because Galileo would know about it and be interested in such things, and therefore have an opinion or be knowledge about.

I am told by K.M. Weiland that it’s wise for an author to eavesdrop on ordinary conversations with real people in everyday situations, or if you’re lucky, less ordinary situations. Hearing how people really talk to each other may provide inspiration to create authentic conversational exchanges in a story. Give them a real-life edge. Just don’t get caught eavesdropping though, or you might find yourself in a conversational exchange you really didn’t want to be in. Being tactful and subtle would be wise. But that’s hardly how I go about creating conversational exchanges between the characters in my novels. I’ve studied the mechanics of conversational exchange as part of my study of language and linguistics. This may be a bit sterile for some people, but it’s how I go about it. It’s my way. You may have a different way. If so, no problem.

Again, I’ve been general about conversational exchanges between characters because I don’t want to go too deep, just yet. All I’m really doing now is highlighting and discussing the important features of a novel. Dialogue is one of them, narrative is the other. But this shouldn’t stop people from experimenting or being creative when they create dialogue in their novel. Some people embellish their creative works with interesting things to heighten the bonus richness of their story. Frank Herbert did this:

How do we approach the study of Mau’Dib’s father? A man of surpassing warmth and surprising coldness was the Duke Leto Atreides. Yet, many facts open the way to this Duke: his abiding love for his Bene Gesserit lady; the dreams he held for his son; the devotion with which men served him. You see him there – a man snared by Destiny, a lonely figure with his light dimmed behind the glory of his son. Still, one must ask: What is the son but an extension of the father?

– from Maud’Dib, Family Commentaries’ by Princess Irulan

      [Frank Herbert, Dune, p. 44, ebook version, 1965 & 2010]

But such things are for another discussion. The mechanics of conversational exchange are basically what he said, she said, or only what she said. But some thought must be given to why conversational exchanges occur in the first place, as well as of their content. Why does the character speak now? Why did the other character respond the way she did? And this is the realm of creative imagination, and story work.


Author: Robert M. Easterbrook

I'm one of those tall thin guys who looks around a lot and keeps to himself. I've recently completed a PhD, thinking it might be useful for something. I'm also a dreamer, because dreaming is far more interesting than the mundane.

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