A Writer’s Notebook: Found dialogue

The following conversation is not one I invented. I made up the characters and the situation, but the dialogue already existed. But I’ll explain below.

Jacob smiled and leaned across the table. “It’s terribly funny,” he said. He winked.

Sebastian shook his head. “You are pulling my leg.” Jacob only grinned. “You exaggerate!” Sebastian said. “Surely not!” Jacob sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his neck; he was still grinning. Sebastian eyed him, screwed up his mouth in a thoughtful pose. “You don’t say,” he said slowly, then he leaned forward himself and slapped the table. “You are joking!”

Jacob shrugged.

Finally, Sebastian pushed himself away from the table and stood.

“Joking apart,” he said. “Agreed.  Ok?”

Jacob clapped his hands and stood as well. He walked around the table and slapped Sebastian across the back.

“Likable!” he said. He clapped Sebastian again. “Nice personality! It’s wonderful, splendid.”

Sebastian bowed and Jacob laughed with him. “Encore!” Jacob said.

They left the cafe and walked up the dark street, arms around each other’s shoulders.

“You are crazy,” Sebastian said.

“So much the better,” Jacob said.

Sebastian shook his head as Jacob guided them around a turn and into a small alley.

“My pals,” Sebastian said.

A new voice emerged from the shadows, gravelly but thin, a bit high pitched. “He is a jolly nice fellow,” the voice said.

“It’s rotten luck,” said another, deeper and smoother, almost a hiss.

Jacob and Sebastian stopped, peered into the shadows until they could make out two shapes, one thin and the other thicker.

“To put one’s foot in,” said the first voice.

“To drop a brick,” said the other, and then a small explosion on the alley wall near Sebastian’s head, bits of brick raining across both men.

“To do something stupid,” Jacob said.

When they heard his voice, the owners of both voices emerged into the wedge of light cutting into the alley. A husky woman and a thin, willowy man. They squinted in the light and grinned, both with twisted, yellow teeth. They both rushed to Jacob and hugged him. Sebastian stood aside.

“How are things?” Jacob said.

“Things are going badly,” said the woman with the gravelly voice.

“I am bored,” said the hissing willowy man.

“What a pity!” Jacob said.

“You’ll get used to it,” Sebastian said under his breath. “I don’t care tuppence.”

But the group heard him, and the husky women glared at Sebastian. “What are you driving at?”

Jacob waved one hand, dismissing Sebastian. “He was drunk,” he said, then he looked pointedly at Sebastian and added, “Fool.”

“Be quiet!” Sebastian said. “Shut up!”

“Take it easy!” the willowy man said, both hands pressing against the air as though suppressing something physical.

“Calm yourself!”

“That’s going too far!” Sebastian said.

Jacob said only, “Damn.”

I’ve always been a fan of found art, be it Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal he stole and claimed as his own sculpture) or Donald’s Rumsfeld’s accidental poem “The Unknown.” But here I’m using found dialogue.

Strangely enough, all the spoken words in this scene appear — verbatim and in order — as “popular idioms” in an old copy of the Collins Dutch Phrase Book (1975), which I found on my parents’ bookshelf this week. The choice of phrases struck me as so odd and so amusing that I couldn’t help but hear them as a conversation, which got me wondering who might have such a conversation and where it might take place.

Dialogue itself is a tricky business, really, but because it’s so tricky, we often place more emphasis on how to write dialogue for scenes and pay not enough attention to how scenes might fit around dialogue. And thanks to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” most beginning writers try at least one story written entirely in dialogue but forget the importance of threading action and description into a conversation to control pace and set scenes. So this exercise can be a handy way to practice building a scene around dialogue without having to invent the conversation itself. This can be especially useful if you’re working with nonfiction or writing interviews and have lines of dialogue or the text of a conversation but don’t know how to build a scene for it.

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