Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth has this scene at the start of the Chapter 4 that develops primarily through dialogue. In fact, bulk of that chapter is dialogue. The dialogue is between two characters: Franny, a cocktail waitress, and Leon Posen, a customer at the bar and occupationally a writer. The setting is Chicago’s iconic Palmer House Hotel. It’s near closing time for the bar so it’s almost empty. Franny is a huge fan of Leon Posen and she has read all his works quite faithfully. So when she finds out that Leon Posen is at the bar, Franny takes the opportunity to be his bartender to impress her idol. Leon, for his part, has had a few drinks already and he’s smitten by Franny’s beauty. He relishes at the idea of being served by Franny so that she could linger around him.
Essentially, it’s a flirting scene at a bar between a “bartender” and customer which may or may not lead to a hook-up. The premise of the scene is not unremarkable. But Patchett surprises the reader and interweaves the scene with wit and charm that keeps the dialogue wholly engaging. Aspiring writers are often reminded that the dialogue shouldn’t ring flat. But it shouldn’t be too smart either, which is exactly the risk in this case. Patchett is witty and so are her characters in this context. Leon Posen is a well-known literary talent of his generation and Franny is a well-read and sharp devotee. There’s an urge for one character to try and impress the other. So the dialogue could easily turn erudite to a degree that the characters appear pretentiously smart but no longer vulnerable, which is essentially who Franny and Leon are and what draws them to each other. The way Patchett strikes a careful balance in this dialogue becomes a teachable moment.
“I was born in Los Angeles,” Franny said, once the couple were mercifully gone. She’d been waiting such a long time to say it she wasn’t sure the point still had any conversational relevance.
“But you had the sense to get out.”
“I like Los Angeles.” In Los Angeles she was always a child. She swam the length of Marjorie’s mother’s pool, skimming its blue bottom in her two-piece bathing suit. The shadow of Caroline, half-asleep on her inflatable raft, was a rectangular cloud above her. Their father was just at the water’s edge in a lounge chair reading The Godfather.
“You say that because we’re in Chicago and it’s February.”
“If L.A.’s so awful why do you live there?”
“I have a wife in Los Angeles,” he said. “That’s something I’m working on.”
“That’s why people come to Chicago,” Franny said, “To get away from wives.” She was thinking of divorce law, thinking now there was a practice she’d never touch, before she remembered that she’d never touch any of them.
“You sound like a bartender.”
She shook her head. “I’m a cocktail waitress. I can’t mix a drink.”
“You’re a bartender to those of us who don’t need their drinks mixed, and I’d like another scotch. You did a very good job getting that first one in the glass.” He studied her then as if she had only now stepped in front of him. “You’re taller again.”
“You told me it might improve my tip.”
He shook his head. “No, you told me it might improve your tip, and it won’t. I don’t actually care how tall you are. Take off your shoes and I’ll buy you a drink.”
I once came across this nugget of information (I can’t remember where) that if a manuscript has to get past the slush pile then dialogue is its savior. The worth of a writer is determined by his/her ability to write a good dialogue scene. So a manuscript is opened to a random page with dialogue in it and the manuscript reader determines if the dialogue is good or bad, and subsequently the chance of reading the entire manuscript. Whether this practice of filtering manuscripts is true or not, I haven’t confirmed. But it always interested me how much emphasis is put on the dialogue. There’s something satisfying and tricky about dialogue writing. For one thing, dialogue feels action-oriented. It quickens the pace of the narrative. It feels lively. Most importantly, it feels like a direct window to the character’s soul. At the same time, dialogue can be demanding, for the number of targets (characterization, action, plot, voice, etc.) that need to be hit concurrently in few words.
Some of the writers whose dialogue writing really stands out for me are Frank O’Connor, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Gabriel García Márquez, and William Faulkner. Frank O’Connor is unsurpassable in this art I believe. His short story “Guests of the Nation” is a brilliant example of how dialogue can lend a lively and emotive voice to a character. Márquez, who is so sparing in his usage of dialogue, makes sure that every time his characters speak they stand out. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, there’s nothing mundane or ordinary about the characters’ speech. Every time they open their mouth, they sound so larger than life, ironical, edgy, prophetic, or portentous.
There are many ways to good dialogue writing. Good writers must have their own rules and standard for what count as good dialogue. The one that I have found to be helpful is to align the tone and language of the dialogue to the characters’ vulnerability and follies. In that way, a space is created in the dialogue for empathy, irony, foreshadowing, and suspense. Patchett’s dialogue that I have sampled above is definitely not a textbook case of flirting. It is charming and witty, but at the same time quirky. But the scene’s focus is beyond the present. Whether Franny and Leon will hook up is not the dialogue’s only goal; rather, it foreshadows the future: why the relationship between the two evolves the way it does.