Search for the Essence

 When I first began writing, I sat around in malls and coffee shops, wearing dark glasses and a trenchcoat with the collar turned up, and eavesdropped on conversations.

Well, not really. I didn’t have a trenchcoat, and I think eavesdropping on strangers can get you in a lot of trouble. But I did wear the dark glasses so that I wouldn’t appear to be staring at anyone. And I did sit in malls and coffeeshops, an open notebook on my lap,  jotting down bits and pieces of half-finished conversations. Things like,

                        Do you know what he said to me?

                        I’ll never be that size again!

                        If I could just get on that cruise ship to Greece . . .

                        I’ve been waiting for her to make the first move

                        What’s that scent you’re wearing?

                        I’ve told her and told her not to . . .

                        She borrowed my best sweater and spilled . . .

                        Hey, you don’t want to believe anything he tells you.

                        No, I won’t change my mind, not even if . . .

I thought at first that dialogue means writing everything – every boring word – that comes out of a character’s mouth. I soon discovered that bits and pieces – the revealing bits and pieces – are the heart of communication. Condensation is the key. It’s a little like writing poetry, in which we search for the essence of a thought, a feeling, a vision.

In dialogue, when you eliminate all the extraneous baggage, you end up with what’s important, what’s revealing, what makes a conversation real. Not a word by word repeat of what was said. But real. There’s an important difference.

Try this. Turn on a recorder and tape the conversation at the dinner table. Then try to transcribe it in a notebook. You will find yourself recording lots of ers, ums, I wonder ifs, and have you heard abouts. That’s an accurate replay of dialogue. It’s the way we talk to each other, and we decorate our sentences with adverbs galore. But it’s not the kind of dialogue you want to put on the printed page.

You want the essence of the words to speak out, to clarify, to show place, character and plot without getting all messed up with unnecessary verbage. Sure, we will never speak to each other this way. We’ll continue wagging our tongues, interrupting each other as we go, and enjoying every minute of it. That’s conversation, and it’s what humans glory in. But it’s not dialogue.

For a fine example of tight dialogue, read Marilyn Sach’s Bus Ride. The entire book is written in dialogue that shows setting, action, and character development. I pick it up and study it now and then just to remind myself that it’s the essence that counts!

Contributed by Marilyn Donahue


4 responses to “Search for the Essence

  1. Very interesting.


  2. gloriastockstill

    I’ve not heard of this book, Marilyn. I’ll have to check it out.


  3. Shirley Shibley

    You hit the nail on the head, Marilyn, or should I say, fingernail on the keyboard? The essence–the meat, the importance and real stuff dialogue is made of and means.


  4. Great observations, Marilyn. You’re a natural with dialogue. Your characters always know just the right thing to say!

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