Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Maximizing Dialogue

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Maximizing Dialogue

Article excerpt

A GOOD QUOTE is a big-game hunter's trophy head. It hangs over the fireplace, handsome but lifeless. Dialogue is the safari itself, an on-the-scene experience that puts you right out there with the zebras, lions and wildebeests. That's because direct quotations are ripped from their original context and transported to an alien environment. But dialogue unfolds the way humans actually speak--to one another, in the context of a scene.

Consider this terrific opening to a profile of two prominent nutritionists: Bill and Sonja Connor are sitting in the dining room of their Portland Heights home, a stack of the doctor's books and papers pushed to the side. "Most of the time," the 70-year-old scientist begins, hands folded, "we don't have disagreements."

Dark-haired Sonja. 47, has been toying with a paper clip, but at her husband's statement, she snaps her head to face him.

"Bill," she blurts, '"that is not true."

The slight, gentlemanly Connor looks at her in surprise.

"If you said that at work, people would die laughing," Sonja Connor says, her words tumbling as fast as margarine melting in a hot skillet. "We always disagree."

"We do? says her husband, his dark-rimmed glasses sitting slightly askew on his face.

Perfect. Here are two people with such independent minds that they disagree about Whether they disagree. And that, as it turns out, is one of the keys to their relationship AND their scientific accomplishments.

Note all the work this opener does. It grabs interest, reveals character and establishes the overall theme. It provides snippets of involving action. It contains physical description of the key characters and bits of background.

In each of those respects, it matches the literary expertise of a master such as Gay Talese, who also used dialogue as an efficient and effective opener for profiles. Here's his top for "Mr. Bad News," his profile of New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman: "Winston Churchill gave your heart attack," the wife of the obituary writer said, but the obituary writer, a short and rather shy man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe, shook his head and replied, very softly, "No it was not Winston Churchill" "Then T.S. Eliot gave you your heart attack," she quickly added, light{y, for they were at a small dinner party in New York and the others seemed amused. "No," the obituary writer said, again softly, "it was not T.S. Eliot."

A simple exchange .... But it, too, works hard. Talese engages interest and sets a scene. He begins the physical description of his protagonist and hints at his key character traits. …

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