Pushing further away from expositional dialogue, we come to what I call ‘hip’ dialogue.
Hip-speech is a version of slang, similar to criminal slang – it is a way of communicating without fear of being overheard and understood.
The jazz musician Lester Young came up with or popularized a lot of hip language – language that was later taken over by the Beats, then the hippies and then by everyone.
‘That knocks me out…’
‘That sends me…’
What hip speak says is Y’know what I mean or You get me. And it is usually used because the speaker is already sure that the listener does know and does get.
The effect of this on the page is, for the reader, slightly alienating to begin with. The reader doesn’t know exactly what one person means by what they are saying to another person – because every word chosen is intended not for an outsider but an insider.
(Later on, when the reader has learned what the hip words mean, understanding gives them a powerful feeling of inclusion.)
All forms of hip language are addressed by one person who is in the know to another equally or perhaps just a little bit less in the know.
If you are writing this way, you are crediting the reader with the ability to overhear, to retain and to triangulate meanings that aren’t given directly in an expository way.
TV aside: Think of the dialogue in The Wire. Think of ‘re-up’. For some viewers, this was language they recognized – perhaps they used it every day, or perhaps it was already, as far as they were concerned, comically out-of-date. But for many viewers, they had to learn a lot of new words by putting this conversation over here together with that exchange over there.
I admit, I often watched with the subtitles on, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. There are no subtitles in real life. They have no equivalent in fiction, apart from the reading doing some googling for themselves, but the heaviest form of exposition would be a glossary at the back of the book.
Literary aside: Junot Díaz included a glossary of Dominican Republic slang at the back of his first book of short stories, Drown. It is bizarrely incomplete. I’ve never worked out why.
Have more confidence in your reader. Leave gaps, and trust your reader to fill them in for you.
No gaps equals no story.
THE STUTTER OF OH FUCK IT
One thing to remember about dialogue is that different people speak in different ways to different people at different times.
A man in a pub after a few pints is very different to the same man in the elevator with his work colleagues, or speaking at the funeral of a friend.
Distinguishing speakers on the page can be troublesome. The cheapest way to do it is to dole out regional accents, speech impediments and verbal tics to all the minor people. Then, every time we see st-st-st, we know it’s so-and-so. Major people will tend to have more average speech.
The more subtle way to do different speakers is to convey everything through syntax – that is, the particular order of the words they use to say something. This will be flexible, depending on the context in which they find themselves.
Even simpler, as an approach, is to make the power relations clear. Who is top dog in the scene? If one top dog is giving another orders or instructions, and the underdog is essentially agreeing and asking for clarification, it will be perfectly clear who is speaking even if they use exactly the same syntax, pronunciation, everything.
‘We go to the swamp.’
‘We go to the swamp.’
‘We locate our mother.’
‘We locate our mother, yes.’
But I’ve got slightly ahead of myself by mentioning top dog.