Talking at Cross-Purposes: Dialogue

watching you

The other day when I was writing about Albert Brooks’ new book, 2030, and talking about how I thought the dialogue was not so great, I briefly considered giving some examples.  And then I thought, good God, who’d want to read all THAT plus all the other stuff I have to say.   But today it occurred to me that if most of this post is written by George Orwell and comes from 1984, that can’t be so bad.

Before I started writing fiction seriously, I never gave much thought to dialogue. (Instead, my bete noir was endless landscape descriptions, which I just skipped, so as not to ruin my enjoyment of the plot).   Now that I have to write it myself, though, I realize that some dialogue is better than others and that good dialogue actually does a lot of stuff.  Among other things, really fine dialogue (1) moves the story along, (2) makes us feel tension and so makes us want to keep reading; (3) helps us see something about a character we hadn’t seen before and maybe, for good measure, (4) makes us see something interesting about the world we hadn’t seen before.

To accomplish this, good dialogue very often shows characters being thwarted or thwarting other characters —  in good dialogue, you see people who might disagree, evade, challenge each other, tell lies, work harder to get what they want, and in so doing maybe even get into more hot water than they’re already in.   They don’t have to yell or scream to do this, either.  You can open an Austen novel to any page that has dialogue in it and you will see people doing these very things, in the most genteel of tones.

To illustrate this, I’ve picked a piece from 1984 and one from 2030, both dystopian novels with numbers — years in fact — in their titles. Both the 1984 passage and the 2030 passage involve one character seeking information from another.  They’re chosen somewhat at random — I picked the first places I saw dialogue in which there’s information gathering.

As it turns out, there isn’t actually a lot of dialogue in 1984.  It’s a book that very much focuses on Winston’s experience of the world in which he lives and toward which he grows increasingly opposed.  Because it’s a book that concerns itself with thought control, it’s no surprise that we see a lot of Winston resisting — within himself and in his diary —  efforts to circumscribe his world by circumscribing the language available to him.  But here’s an example of dialogue in which we learn something about Winston, Winston’s world, and something larger about our own lives — which might make us uncomfortable, and which also deepens the story.

In this passage, Winston goes to a bar to mingle with the “proles” the class that’s still out of reach of the efforts of the thought police.  He strikes up a conversation with an older man, a prole who doesn’t seem afraid to say what he thinks, if only to say that he doesn’t want to order his beer in the metric system but the old way — by the pint.  Winston tries to get the man to tell him if things were better in the past.  But the older man can’t do this — or Wilson doesn’t think he can — because the man’s answers are particular, rather than general.  And so he can only tell Winston stories about what life was like for him in the past.

The prole, as it turns out, isn’t an historian.  He’s a storyteller.  And really, the difference between the two is a lot like the difference between a summary and a story, one of the very things that distinguishes 2030 from 1984.    Here it is.  Yes, it is long.  But if you haven’t read 1984 or you haven’t read it in a while,  it’s worth your time :

Beer was the only drink you could get in prole pubs. The proles were supposed not to drink gin, though in practice they could get hold of it easily enough. The game of darts was in full swing again, and the knot of men at the bar had begun talking about lottery tickets. Winston’s presence was forgotten for a moment. There was a deal table under the window where he and the old man could talk without fear of being overheard. It was horribly dangerous, but at any rate there was no telescreen in the room, a point he had made sure of as soon as he came in.

” ‘E could ‘a drawed me off a pint “, grumbled the old man as he settled down behind a glass. ” A ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.” ” You must have seen great changes since you were a young man “, said Winston tentatively.

The old man’s pale blue eyes moved from the darts board to the bar, and from the bar to the door of the Gents, as though it were in the bar-room that he expected the changes to have occurred. ” The beer was better “, he said finally. ” And cheaper ! When I was a young man, mild beer – wallop we used to call it – was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.” ” Which war was that ? ” said Winston.

” It’s all wars “, said the old man vaguely. He took up his glass, and his shoulders straightened again. ” ‘Ere’s wishing you the very best of ‘ealth !”

In his lean throat the sharp-pointed Adam’s apple made a surprisingly rapid up-and-down movement, and the beer vanished. Winston went to the bar and came back with two more half-litres. The old man appeared to have forgotten his prejudice against drinking a full litre.

” You are very much older than I am “, said Winston. ” You must have been a grown man before I was born. You can remember what it was like in the old days, before the Revolution. People of my age don’t really know anything about those times. We can only read about them in books, and what it says in the books may not be true. I should like your opinion on that. The history books say that life before the Revolution was completely different from what it is now. There was the most terrible oppression, injustice, poverty worse than anything we can imagine. Here in London, the great mass of the people never had enough to eat from birth to death. Half of them hadn’t even boots on their feet. They worked twelve hours a day, they left school at nine, they slept ten in a room. And at the same time there were a very few people, only a few thousands – the capitalists, they were called – who were rich and powerful. They owned everything that there was to own. They lived in great gorgeous houses with thirty servants, they rode about in motor-cars and four-horse carriages, they drank champagne, they wore top hats – ”

The old man brightened suddenly.

” Top ‘ats ! ” he said. ” Funny you should mention ’em. The same thing come into my ‘ead only yesterday, I dono why. I was jest thinking, I ain’t seen a top ‘at in years. Gorn right out, they ‘ave. The last time I wore one was at my sister-in-law’s funeral. And that was – well, I couldn’t give you the date, but it must’a been fifty years ago. Of course it was only ‘ired for the occasion, you understand.”

” It isn’t very important about the top hats “, said Winston patiently. ” The point is, these capitalists – they and a few lawyers and priests and so forth who lived on them – were the lords of the earth. Everything existed for their benefit. You – the ordinary people, the workers – were their slaves. They could do what they liked with you. They could ship you off to Canada like cattle. They could sleep with your daughters if they chose. They could order you to be flogged with something called a cat-o’-nine tails. You had to take your cap off when you passed them. Every capitalist went about with a gang of lackeys who – ”

The old man brightened again.

” Lackeys ! ” he said. ” Now there’s a word I ain’t ‘eard since ever so long. Lackeys ! That reg’lar takes me back, that does. I recollect oh, donkey’s years ago – I used to sometimes go to ‘Yde Park of a Sunday afternoon to ‘ear the blokes making speeches. Salvation Army, Roman Catholics, Jews, Indians – all sorts there was. And there was one bloke – well, I couldn’t give you ‘is name, but a real powerful speaker ‘e was. ‘E didn’t ‘alf give it ’em! ” Lackeys ! ” ‘e says, ” lackeys of the bourgeoisie! Flunkies of the ruling class !” Parasites – that was another of them. And ‘yenas – ‘e definitely called ’em ‘yenas. Of course ‘e was referring to the Labour Party, you understand.”

Winston had the feeling that they were talking at cross-purposes.

” What I really wanted to know was this “, he said. ” Do you feel that you have more freedom now than you had in those days ? Are you treated more like a human being ? In the old days, the rich people, the people at the top – ”

“The ‘Ouse of Lords “, put in the old man reminiscently.

” The House of Lords, if you like. What I am asking is, were these people able to treat you as an inferior, simply because they were rich and you were poor ? Is it a fact, for instance, that you had to call them ” Sir ” and take off your cap when you passed them ?”

The old man appeared to think deeply. He drank off about a quarter of his beer before answering.

” Yes “, he said. ” They liked you to touch your cap to ’em. It showed respect, like. I didn’t agree with it, myself, but I done it often enough. Had to, as you might say.”

” And was it usual – I’m only quoting what I’ve read in history books – was it usual for these people and their servants to push you off the pavement into the gutter ? ”

” One of ’em pushed me once “, said the old man. ” I recollect it as if it was yesterday. It was Boat Race night – terribly rowdy they used to get on Boat Race night – and I bumps into a young bloke on Shaftesbury Avenue. Quite a gent, ‘e was – dress shirt, top ‘at, black overcoat. ‘E was kind of zig-zagging across the pavement, and I bumps into ‘im accidental-like. ‘E says, ” Why can’t you look where you’re going ? ” ‘e says. I say, ‘Ju think you’ve bought the bleeding pavement ? ” ‘E says, “I’ll twist your bloody ‘ead off if you get fresh with me. ” I says, ” You’re drunk. I’ll give you in charge in ‘alf a minute “, I says. An’ if you’ll believe me, ‘e puts ‘is ‘and on my chest and gives me a shove as pretty near sent me under the wheels of a bus. Well, I was young in them days, and I was going to ‘ave fetched ‘im one, only – ”

A sense of helplessness took hold of Winston. The old man’s memory was nothing but a rubbish-heap of details. One could question him all day without getting any real information. The party histories might still be true, after a fashion: they might even be completely true. He made a last attempt.

” Perhaps I have not made myself clear “, he said. ” What I’m trying to say is this. You have been alive a very long time; you lived half your life before the Revolution. In 1925, for instance, you were already grown up. Would you say from what you can remember, that life in 1925 was better than it is now, or worse ? If you could choose, would you prefer to live then or now ? ”

The old man looked meditatively at the darts board. He finished up his beer, more slowly than before. When he spoke it was with a tolerant philosophical air, as though the beer had mellowed him.

” I know what you expect me to say “, he said. ” You expect me to say as I’d sooner be young again. Most people’d say they’d sooner be young, if you arst’ ’em. You got your ‘ealth and strength when you’re young. When you get to my time of life you ain’t never well. I suffer something wicked from my feet, and my bladder’s jest terrible. Six and seven times a night it ‘as me out of bed. On the other ‘and, there’s great advantages in being a old man. You ain’t got the same worries. No truck with women, and that’s a great thing. I ain’t ‘ad a woman for near on thirty year, if you’d credit it. Nor wanted to, what’s more.”

Winston sat back against the window-sill. It was no use going on. He was about to buy some more beer when the old man suddenly got up and shuffled rapidly into the stinking urinal at the side of the room. The extra half-litre was already working on him. Winston sat for a minute or two gazing at his empty glass, and hardly noticed when his feet carried him out into the street again. Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, ” Was life better before the Revolution than it is now ?” would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed and written records were falsified – when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.

What we learn here is that Winston thinks that history lies in the big picture, in the general, in the long view.  The old man he talks to tells Winston stories about the past, very intimate, particular, small stories, which are quite interesting and keep our attention (no small feat, that).  But Winston isn’t able to read this man — in other words, he can’t see that the man’s stories actually ARE history.  We see that Winston might be wrong about something — or that he might be looking in the wrong place for what he wants to know.  We also see him being thwarted and challenged to dig deeper into the way  he thinks about the question he’s come to the proles to ask.

This is from 2030.  It is a conversation between a man who works high up in the AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons — really, people over 50, most of whom are not, in fact, retired, not now anyway)  and a man who works at the Justice Department.  The first man is gay, the second man is on his way to being fully out.  They are interested in each other personally and sexually as well as professionally.  And they also share a similar goal:  they want to figure out who’s been trying to hurt the “olds” and stop them from doing further damage.

The night of the barbecue was also the night of the fourth act of terrorism against the olds.  At eight o’clock on that Friday evening a bomb went off in a San Diego retirement community, killing twenty seniors and wounding a hundred more, including younger staff.  What had started several years earlier as an isolated incident was now intensifying in frequency and magnitude.  Paul Prescott was on the phone with Jack Willman as soon as he heard.

“What the fuck is going on out there?

“This one I don’t know about.  It was a suicide event.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“They’ve recovered the body, which will tell us something, but we had no warning of it and we don’t even think it was connected to the others.”

“Jesus,” Paul said.  “How vast is this?”

“I don’t know  This one was scary.  Maybe someone who lived there did it.”

“Why? Someone was pissed because they never won at bingo?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe a relative or someone who expected an inheritance.  When I get more information, I’ll tell y ou.”

“You’re being really great here, Jack.  I feel like this is one-way.  What can I do for you?”

“Do you have seats to the Redskins?”

“Are you a football fan?”


“Gimme a week.  I’ll get you seats on the bench.”

“Listen, Paul, if you did nothing I would still give you whatever information I have.  This is scary shit.  Did you see that some of the younger staff were also killed?”

“I saw that.  What’s that all about?”

“It just means whoever did this isn’t particular.  As long as enough elderly get it, whoever is nearby gets it, too.  That’s a bad guy.”

“I appreciate whatever info you can get me.”

“I appreciate the tickets.”

This dialogue tells you very little about these characters — how they feel, what’s ambiguous or unclear between and within them.  In fact, the only way you can really tell the difference between the two men is by the frequency with which they use each other’s names.  These two men might have a problem — terrorism against old people that they’d like to stop — but their problem alone isn’t enough to interest us.  If it was, then any novel that posited a plot in which a terrorist group goes around killing old people would be a winner.  When we read novels 0r at least when I do — I want to know about people, what THEY think about the problem, where their fault lines are, where they’re wrong and slowly learning to be right.

Now this isn’t terrible dialogue — it does let us know what’s happened and why it might have happened.  We know that Jack is fond of Paul Prescott.  And we see that Paul is a good guy who’ll give him football tickets.  But really, when you compare the amount of WORK this piece of dialogue does to the amount of work Orwell’s does, it’s like comparing a tractor to a Ferrari.  Granted, 2030‘s is shorter, but you can accomplish far more in a eighteen lines of dialogue than Brooks does here.

In the end, what I think about this dialogue from 2030 is that if it were in the mouths of actors, it might work.  Maybe you wouldn’t have the two men on the phone (phone calls are terrible for really finding out what someone’s up to by the way), and maybe an actor could put a spin on some of this stuff so you could see, just for example, pent-up lust between the two guys, or some kind of insecurity one feels about the other, some doubt about whether the other guy’s telling the truth, some concern that maybe this plot against old people isn’t all  bad — that kind of thing.  This passage occurs in the middle of the book — things aren’t supposed to be this, well, agreeable, in the middle of a book.

And now I’m going to go and re-read 1984, and see how Orwell handles chapters and chapters where there’s almost no dialogue at all.

Then maybe I will go and try to write some decent dialogue of my own.


10 thoughts on “Talking at Cross-Purposes: Dialogue

  1. It does read like an early script draft, not a novel. An actor could do plenty with it, but you aren’t supposed to have to think like that when reading a book. Also, both characters speak just like Albert Brooks does. Dialogue in a novel should reflect character and project identity. Maybe he should have written this as a play.

  2. I read 1984 a long time before 1984. I need to read it again. Even though the things postulated in that book have not come to pass exactly, it bothers me that there are so many young people who don’t seem to care that they have lost so much privacy, what with GPS on their smartphone that can track their movements minute by minute, computers with video cameras that the government can actually turn on and use to watch you without you knowing it, etc.

    I’m starting to wonder where it will all end.

  3. Mikey — Yes, I think you’re right. No shame in that, either. It’s hard to write a book, and if you don’t get it exactly right the first time, because your habits are drawn from writing so much in a different form, well, it’s interesting to learn how they’re different. And also, it’s been interesting for me to think about this book. By the way, right now I’m reading Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville which is incredible: she nails the 1970s and she’s very, truly funny. Check it out if you have a chance.

    Ms HMH — Both my sons read 1984 this year in their English classes. Tonight at dinner, I’m going to mention what you just pointed out and see what their response is. I have a colleague who never writes anything personal in e-mails to me, which I very much respect. It also means that we have to wait until we’re face-to-face to speak about the personal — I like that!

  4. Great analysis. I think it’s all to easy for fiction writers to forget that what’s interesting about characters’ interactions is seeing them thwart each other. I’ve been in a number of fiction workshops and classes, and I don’t remember anyone identifying the issue in quite such useful terms as you have. Actors and screenwriters, on the other hand, are more aware of it, and for this reason (and others) I think it can be beneficial to any writer to try out acting.

    On that note, I found “Playing Shakespeare,” a set of acting workshops recorded in the 80s by the Royal Shakespeare Society, really interesting for things like this. It’s not completely relevant, but there was one discussion of monologue in particular that I think showed how the same principles of conflict could enrich anything dramatic. You get to see Ian McKellan do a highly emotional yet flat reading, and then a much less emotive but more dramatic reading by paying attention to the opposing ideas in the monologue.


    • Jake — I really like the sound of that Playing Shakespeare recording. I’m going to search it out now. It has never occurred to me to look at the link between acting and writing, which seems like a wonderful idea! I’m so glad you mentioned it. And so glad to hear from you too.

      • Check them out on YouTube, as I think the DVDs are pricey. The scene I was thinking of was actually Patrick Stewart, I believe:

        It seems to be only relevant to acting, but I think in its illustration of the use of action and conflict to carry everything — even high-flown rhetoric — it’s relevant to writing.

        You know, just after noting the typo, I realized my comment must seem bizarre, since Brooks is of course an actor. It could be I’m just wrong about actors being more aware of the necessity of conflict. I was just enthused to see a concept that I associate with drama well articulated here. In any case, I think that as long as a writer recognizes that he or she has to do all of the work on the page (which Brooks may forget), there is a lot to be learned from acting.

    • Whenever I re-read a comment and realize I’ve done something like that — leave out an apostrophe in an its or make a typo with too/to I wonder why wordpress doesn’t have a thing that lets you edit your comments. I mean, I can edit your comments, which hardly seems fair, does it? xo

  5. I love your analysis of dialogue. Teaching students how to write it isn’t easy because they want to do what Brooks does, use it for information, when really it’s better when it’s gestural—the same sort of character can be written in movement or modes of expression. I especially like the way Orwell (and, sorry, it’s George Orwell who wrote 1984 and Aldous Huxley who wrote Brave New World) frustrates communication. Both men say a great deal, and neither communicates much. They communicate even less to each other. Yet the anticipation of some breakthrough encourages you to read on. Brooks’ dialogue is movie-efficient but dull.

  6. Gestural! That’s a good way to put it. (As for Aldous and George — god. All those dead british dystopian authors look the same. Just kidding.) Thanks for coming by. Do you think your pen’s fixable? I hope so.

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