The Craft of Dialogue

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring some essential writing techniques that I’ve garnered over the years. Some, have migrated over from screenwriting, but they are applicable, with a little modification, to the novel or short story.

Today’s topic is how to add resonance and depth to your story through metaphor in dialogue.

In film, as in the novel, dialogue provides a plethora of opportunities for hooking the reader into the story early, developing character, and developing plot. One of the ways to deepen the reading experience, to create a sense of resonance in your writing, is through the use of metaphor. Metaphors may appear in several forms – as visual, olfactory, and auditory objects. In this blog we shall be touching on their use in dialogue.

Make Metaphors Unobtrusive

The first thing to say is that a metaphor shouldn’t draw attention to itself as a literary device, since that would snap your reader out of the immersive experience you are trying to create. What it should do, other than embellish character, is quietly seed or explain some previous and/or future moment in your story. This could take the form of foreshadowing the “reveal” — the moment in which some previously unexplained or hidden motive or event is shown for what it truly is. Structuring reveals is an indispensable part of creating momentum in your stories, but that is the subject of a future blog.

Allow Metaphors to Stitch your Story Together

The cardinal rule in writing is, as we’ve often heard,  “show, don’t tell.” I would rephrase this to read: in showing, rather than telling, it is preferable to reveal the hidden truth in your story in a measured and purposeful way — in the case of dialogue, through a series of related but widely interspersed metaphors. Dialogue is a prime candidate for metaphor since, metaphor, by its very nature, carries more meaning than ordinary language. Additionally, metaphor in dialogue is less obtrusive than in a descriptive block, since it can fly under the radar as part of a character’s speech idiom. Metaphors, once fully unpacked by the reader or audience, act as invisible threads, stitching your characters and story together into a seamless whole.

Metaphors in Chinatown

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Chinatown between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in which Gittes notices a black spot in the green part of Evelyn’s eye, prompting her to remark, “Oh, that…it’s a flaw in the iris…”. This admission of a flaw, of course, is about much more than the structure of her iris. Like a fracture in a beautiful diamond, Evelyn’s secret is not visible at first glance. The idea of a flawed diamond with its added capacity for diverting light fits snugly into the idea of flawed moral and physical perception. It points to how easy it is to miss the truth even when it is in plain sight; how easy it is to camouflage from one’s self, and others, a shameful secret in one’s life.

Yet, the “flaw” as a metaphor for imperfection or sin, which may lie at the heart of the beautiful and the rich, also points at the heart of the plot. In Chinatown, it finds expression in one of the greatest lines in movie history, when Evelyn admits to Gittes that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter. This is something that we have failed to spot, just as Gittes failed to see that the gardener’s remark to him earlier — “Bad for glass” — was not referring to the broken eyeglasses at the bottom of the pond at the Mulwray home, but to the fact that saltwater is bad for the lawn. Had Jake allowed for the Chinese tendency (a linguistic flaw?) to pronounce “l” for “r” — “glass” instead of “grass” — he might have understood that Hollis Mulwray, Noah Cross’ former partner, had been drowned in this very pond, at the bequest of Cross, and his body dumped near a storm-drain pipe to make it look like an accident. It is only when the characters and the audience come to see the truth for what it really is (Gittes “seeing” that Noah Cross has instigated the murder and that he has fathered Katherine by sleeping with his own daughter, Evelyn), that the story can reach its dark and somber conclusion: that the rich and powerful are forever hidden from the law’s ability to bring them to justice.

In Summary

Strategically placed metaphors add depth and resonance to your story, yet should never draw attention to themselves as literary devices. In Chinatown, the failure to see the truth is hinted at through metaphorical objects such as cracked eyeglasses, a flawed iris, as well as in dialogue – in Evelyn’s mentioning of the flaw in her eye, and in Gittes mistaking “grass” for “glass”. As metaphors, they seed and explain actions and events as part of a well-structured reveal. Used well, metaphors enrich character and help stitch the various parts of a story into a seamless whole.

In my next blog, I will be discussing the many ways in which dialogue can help to build anticipation and tension.

See you then!