Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 05/05/2022

Episode 16: Break it Up!



By Robert Leslie Bellem

Originally published in the July 1944 issue of Writer’s Digest. Now in the public domain

Of our fraternal sins, perhaps the most glaring is triteness in dialogue. Oh brother, the things that come to editors between quotation marks! If people actually talked that way, deafness would be a blessing.

If your stories contain boring conversation, the thing to learn is best expressed in three little words:

Break it up!

Let me illustrate this point with a scene egotistically lifted from a novelette of mine, “*Murder At Auction*” which I sold to Hollywood Detective Magazine. The back-drop is an apartment where murder has recently been committed. The two characters on stage are John J. Horner, a studio sleuth, and his employer, Lew Quarrie, production chief of Epicure Pictures. Lew is fit to be tied because Horner has failed to do a certain job to which he was assigned, and has just finished giving Horner a tongue-lashing, Horner resents this.

Here’s how it might have been written, God forbid; in which case my editor would justifiably have blown his top:

Horner was angry. “You cannot talk to me that way,” he thundered. “You have browbeaten me ever since I first went to work for you, and I am getting tired of it. I am not your slave. I am no man’s slave. Effective immediately, kindly accept my resignation. Good-bye.”

“Please wait a minute,” Quarrie implored. “I did not intend to offend you or arouse your ire. You must not resign and leave me in this dreadful predicament, which is partly your fault. I need your help, desperately. Do you remember the auction sale to which I sent you this afternoon, at which time I instructed you to purchase a list of the late Don Ballantyne’s personal effects? Well, you bought everything I asked for except one article, a lacquer box full of trinkets; but that was the very object I particularly wanted.”

“Then you should have informed me of your desires,” Horner retorted. “I was under the impression that you merely desired a number of Ballantyne keepsakes and I had already purchased a vast quantity of them. So when some girl with black hair began bidding against me for the box and ran the price up to three hundred dollars, I decided to drop out. I took it upon myself not to spend your money for what seemed to me a collection of useless items.”

“Useless items indeed!” Quarrie said in a horrified tone. “I did not tell you so at the time, but the box in question contained a large fortune in diamonds.”

Who, in real life, ever talked in such a manner? Certainly, not a studio dick and his superior. As I see it, dialogue serves two purposes. First, it gives forward motion to the story; it is informative with regard to the plot. And second, it characterizes the speakers; it tags them for what they are. Therefore, since I had motion picture people on stage, not pedants, I handled the scene this way:

“Sorry,” Horner said with deceptive meekness. “You mentioned a corpse?”

“Yes. I—”

“Then shove it up your nostrils. I resign.”

Quarrie blocked him. “You can’t do that to me. I need you!”

“You need a lesson in civility.”

“Civility be damned.” Quarrie then piously called on heaven to witness that he meant no offense to anyone, least of all to Horner. “Listen,” he said, “this is partly your fault anyhow, so you’ve got to help me.”

“Ah?”

"Yes. Remember that auction I sent you to attend today? The sale of Don Ballantyne’s personal effects?

“Of course I remember,” Horner said. “Suppose you tell me what you’re getting at?”

“I’ll tell you. I gave you a list of certain things I wanted you to buy in for me—”

“And I bought them. All except one.”

“One!” Quarrie said in a tone of suppressed rage. “The one I really wanted.”

Horner lifted a bushy red eyebrow. “A box full of trinkets and trivia? Be serious.”

“Look. Those other things I told you to bid on were merely blinds. It was the lacquer box I was particular about. And its contents.”

“Then you should have let me in on the secret,” Horner said. (Here follows a brief allusion to the brunette girl who had outbid him.) “I couldn’t see spending three centuries, even of your money, for a mass of junk.”

“Junk!” Quarrie moaned, biting a fingernail and asking God to give him strength. “You call diamonds junk?”

There, you see, I have broken up the dialogue and, I hope, used it for its two principal ends: to impart forward motion and expound the plot structure, and, at the same time, to characterize the men who do the talking. It has the phonographic quality of actual speech reproduced.

~

How do real people sound when they’re talking? They run words together, hastily and often sloppily according to geographical origins. Listen : you’re an insurance salesman calling at the office of one Cyrus Q. Doaks. You ask the gum-chewing lassie at the switchboard if you may see him.

“I am sorry, but he is out,” is definitely not the way she would give you the brushoff. She’d do it this way: “I’m sorry, but he’s out.” That actually sounds like a receptionist, doesn’t it?

Again, though, there are exceptions. A supercilious English butler would disdain such verbal infibulations. He would endow each separate syllable with its own adenoidal value: “I am sorry, sir, but he is out.” Dialogue is a tag, among its other uses.

I sedulously recommend to your attention a recent detective novel by a friend of mine, Norbert Davis; a book called “*Sally’s In The Alley*” published by Morrow & Co. Bert Davis is a past master of screwball characters and equally delightful dialogue. Page after page of his opus is devoted to short, crisp speech.

Or take Cleve F. Adams, who vaulted from the pulps to Cosmopolitan and who has a string of successful whodunit novels to his credit. Let’s open at random one of his best books, “*Sabotage*” published by Dutton. On pages 76-77 we have the protagonist, McBride, a private snoop, seeking an interview with a certain man.

A middle-aged woman with a face like an axe said, “This is a survey office. All our purchasing is done through—”

“Thanks,” McBride said. “If I ever decide to become a salesman I’ll let you know.” He laid one of his cards on the counter. “I want to see Carmichael.”

“*Mister* Carmichael?”

“He’s just plain Carmichael to me,” McBride said. He smiled suddenly. “You can call him Mister if you want to.”

(Presently McBride gains access to Carmichael’s private office and swaggers forward, shoving a hand at the saturnine man who sits behind a massive desk.)

“I’m McBride.”

The man took the hand, shook it once, let it drop. “So what?”

“Shall we talk a little bit?”

“About what?”

“About you and me and sudden death, maybe.”

Dialogue has additional usages, over and above characterization or the forward movement of your story. By means of talk placed in the mouths of your dramatis personae you can set the stage; create a feeling of time. Everybody is familiar with the old tried-and-true gambit whereby a story opens with the author’s statement: It was midnight, and Joe Bloke did thus-and-so. Well, for my money that stinks. A little ingenuity, and you can accomplish the same effect with dialogue and avoid triteness. May I blushingly allude once more to this “*Murder At Auction*” novelette of mine? I just finished writing it, so it’s fresh in my mind:

“John J. Horner speaking,” he said indignantly into the telephone. “And if you think it’s funny to call a man after midnight, I don’t.”

The snappy, somewhat petulant voice of Lew Quarrie came to him over the wire. “Omit the cracks. Are you dressed?”

“No, but my clothes are handy,” Horner tinctured his truculence with just the proper shading of respect. “What’s the jam this time?”

“Don’t ask questions. Drive to this address as fast as hell will let you. I’ll be waiting.”

“With a load of grief, no doubt?”

“With a corpse,” Quarrie said bitterly, and hung up.

There are, probably, a dozen better ways in which this could have been written. I live in constant dread that some bright new young fictioneer with sparkle in his eyes will discover some of those better ways and replace me in my entrenched markets. Maybe you’ll be the one, you heel.