dialogue technique

Dialogue Technique In Action, From Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

The lovechild of Literary Fiction and Commercial Blockbuster, Gillian Flynn’s offspring—Dark Places, Sharp Objects, and Gone Girl—exceed every standard for excellence in writing and storytelling. If you haven’t read Flynn, put her on the top of your To Read list.

At random, I pulled an excerpt of dialogue to demonstrate the principles of dialogue covered in the post He Said, She Said.

Read the passage and note:

  • Any instances of dialogue where Flynn uses a verb other than “said”
  • How Flynn uses interior dialogue to pace the conversation
  • How action tags moderate the passage’s pace and illuminate dialogue
  • How the dialogue alleviates the need of qualifying how a statement is spoken

From Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl: A Novel

My sister was at work behind the bar, her hair pulled back in nerdy-girl barrettes, her arms pink as she dipped the beer glasses in and out of hot suds. Go is slender and strange-faced, which is not to say unattractive. Her features just take a moment to make sense: the broad jaw; the pinched, pretty nose; the dark globe eyes. If this were a period movie, a man would tilt back his fedora, whistle at the sight of her, and say, “Now, there’s a helluva broad!” The face of a ’30s screwball-movie queen doesn’t always translate in our pixie-princess times, but I know from our years together that men like my sister, a lot, which puts me in that strange brotherly realm of being both proud and wary.
      “Do they still make pimento loaf?” she said by way of greeting, not looking up, just knowing it was me, and I felt the relief I usually felt when I saw her: Things might not be great, but things would be okay. My twin, Go. I’ve said this phrase so many times, it has become a reassuring mantra instead of actual words:
      My twin. We were born in the ’70s, back when twins were rare, a bit magical: cousins of the unicorn, siblings of the elves. We even have a dash of twin telepathy. Go is truly the one person in the entire world I am totally myself with. I don’t feel the need to explain my actions to her. I don’t clarify, I don’t doubt, I don’t worry. I don’t tell her everything, not anymore, but I tell her more than anyone else, by far. I tell her as much as I can. We spent nine months back to back, covering each other. It became a lifelong habit. It never mattered to me that she was a girl, strange for a deeply self-conscious kid. What can I say? She was always just cool.
      “Pimento loaf, that’s like lunch meat, right? I think they do.”
      “We should get some,” she said. She arched an eyebrow at me. “I’m intrigued.”
      Without asking, she poured me a draft of PBR into a mug of questionable cleanliness. When she caught me staring at the smudged rim, she brought the glass up to her mouth and licked the smudge away, leaving a smear of saliva. She set the mug squarely in front of me. “Better, my prince?”
      Go firmly believes that I got the best of everything from our parents, that I was the boy they planned on, the single child they could afford, and that she sneaked into this world by clamping onto my ankle, an unwanted stranger. (For my dad, a particularly unwanted stranger.) She believes she was left to fend for herself throughout childhood, a pitiful creature of random hand-me-downs and forgotten permission slips, tightened budgets and general regret. This vision could be somewhat true; I can barely stand to admit it.
      “Yes, my squalid little serf,” I said, and fluttered my hands in royal dispensation.
      I huddled over my beer. I needed to sit and drink a beer or three. My nerves were still singing from the morning.
      “What’s up with you?” she asked. “You look all twitchy.” She flicked some suds at me, more water than soap. The air-conditioning kicked on, ruffling the tops of our heads. We spent more time in The Bar than we needed to. It had become the childhood clubhouse we never had. We’d busted open the storage boxes in our mother’s basement one drunken night last year, back when she was alive but right near the end, when we were in need of comfort, and we revisited the toys and games with much oohing and ahhing between sips of canned beer. Christmas in August. After Mom died, Go moved into our old house, and we slowly relocated our toys, piecemeal, to The Bar: a Strawberry Shortcake doll, now scentless, pops up on a stool one day (my gift to Go). A tiny Hot Wheels El Camino, one wheel missing, appears on a shelf in the corner (Go’s to me).
      We were thinking of introducing a board game night, even though most of our customers were too old to be nostalgic for our Hungry Hungry Hippos, our Game of Life with its tiny plastic cars to be filled with tiny plastic pinhead spouses and tiny plastic pinhead babies. I couldn’t remember how you won. (Deep Hasbro thought for the day.)
      Go refilled my beer, refilled her beer. Her left eyelid drooped slightly. It was exactly noon, 12:00, and I wondered how long she’d been drinking. She’s had a bumpy decade. My speculative sister, she of the rocket-science brain and the rodeo spirit, dropped out of college and moved to Manhattan in the late ’90s. She was one of the original dot-com phenoms—made crazy money for two years, then took the Internet bubble bath in 2000. Go remained unflappable. She was closer to twenty than thirty; she was fine. For act two, she got her degree and joined the gray-suited world of investment banking. She was midlevel, nothing flashy, nothing blameful, but she lost her job—fast—with the 2008 financial meltdown. I didn’t even know she’d left New York until she phoned me from Mom’s house: I give up. I begged her, cajoled her to return, hearing nothing but peeved silence on the other end. After I hung up, I made an anxious pilgrimage to her apartment in the Bowery and saw Gary, her beloved ficus tree, yellow-dead on the fire escape, and knew she’d never come back.
      The Bar seemed to cheer her up. She handled the books, she poured the beers. She stole from the tip jar semi-regularly, but then she did more work than me. We never talked about our old lives. We were Dunnes, and we were done, and strangely content about it.
      “So, what?” Go said, her usual way of beginning a conversation.
      “Eh, what? Eh, bad? You look bad.”
      I shrugged a yes; she scanned my face.
      “Amy?” she asked. It was an easy question. I shrugged again—a confirmation this time, a whatcha gonna do? shrug.
      Go gave me her amused face, both elbows on the bar, hands cradling chin, hunkering down for an incisive dissection of my marriage. Go, an expert panel of one. “What about her?”
      “Bad day. It’s just a bad day.”
      “Don’t let her worry you.” Go lit a cigarette. She smoked exactly one a day. “Women are crazy.” Go didn’t consider herself part of the general category of women, a word she used derisively.
      I blew Go’s smoke back to its owner. “It’s our anniversary today. Five years.”
      “Wow.” My sister cocked her head back. She’d been a bridesmaid, all in violet—“the gorgeous, raven-haired, amethyst-draped dame,” Amy’s mother had dubbed her—but anniversaries weren’t something she’d remember. “Jeez. Fuck. Dude. That came fast.” She blew more smoke toward me, a lazy game of cancer catch. “She going to do one of her, uh, what do you call it, not scavenger hunt—”
      “Treasure hunt,” I said.
      My wife loved games, mostly mind games, but also actual games of amusement, and for our anniversary she always set up an elaborate treasure hunt, with each clue leading to the hiding place of the next clue until I reached the end, and my present. It was what her dad always did for her mom on their anniversary, and don’t think I don’t see the gender roles here, that I don’t get the hint. But I did not grow up in Amy’s household, I grew up in mine, and the last present I remember my dad giving my mom was an iron, set on the kitchen counter, no wrapping paper.
      “Should we make a wager on how pissed she’s going to get at you this year?” Go asked, smiling over the rim of her beer.
      The problem with Amy’s treasure hunts: I never figured out the clues. Our first anniversary, back in New York, I went two for seven. That was my best year. The opening parley:

     This place is a bit of a hole in the wall,
      But we had a great kiss there one Tuesday last fall.

Ever been in a spelling bee as a kid? That snowy second after the announcement of the word as you sift your brain to see if you can spell it? It was like that, the blank panic.
      “An Irish bar in a not-so-Irish place,” Amy nudged.
      I bit the side of my lip, started a shrug, scanning our living room as if the answer might appear. She gave me another very long minute.
      “We were lost in the rain,” she said in a voice that was pleading on the way to peeved.
      I finished the shrug.
      “McMann’s, Nick. Remember, when we got lost in the rain in Chinatown trying to find that dim sum place, and it was supposed to be near the statue of Confucius but it turns out there are two statues of Confucius, and we ended up at that random Irish bar all soaking wet, and we slammed a few whiskeys, and you grabbed me and kissed me, and it was—”
      “Right! You should have done a clue with Confucius, I would have gotten that.”
      “The statue wasn’t the point. The place was the point. The moment. I just thought it was special.” She said these last words in a childish lilt that I once found fetching.
      “It was special.” I pulled her to me and kissed her. “That smooch right there was my special anniversary reenactment. Let’s go do it again at McMann’s.”
      At McMann’s, the bartender, a big, bearded bear-kid, saw us come in and grinned, poured us both whiskeys, and pushed over the next clue.

     When I’m down and feeling blue
      There’s only one place that will do.

That one turned out to be the Alice in Wonderland statue at Central Park, which Amy had told me—she’d told me, she knew she’d told me many times—lightened her moods as a child. I do not remember any of those conversations. I’m being honest here, I just don’t. I have a dash of ADD, and I’ve always found my wife a bit dazzling, in the purest sense of the word: to lose clear vision, especially from looking at bright light. It was enough to be near her and hear her talk, it didn’t always matter what she was saying. It should have, but it didn’t.
      By the time we got to the end of the day, to exchanging our actual presents—the traditional paper presents for the first year of marriage—Amy was not speaking to me.
      “I love you, Amy. You know I love you,” I said, tailing her in and out of the family packs of dazed tourists parked in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious and openmouthed. Amy was slipping through the Central Park crowds, maneuvering between laser-eyed joggers and scissor-legged skaters, kneeling parents and toddlers careering like drunks, always just ahead of me, tight-lipped, hurrying nowhere. Me trying to catch up, grab her arm. She stopped finally, gave me a face unmoved as I explained myself, one mental finger tamping down my exasperation: “Amy, I don’t get why I need to prove my love to you by remembering the exact same things you do, the exact same way you do. It doesn’t mean I don’t love our life together.”
      A nearby clown blew up a balloon animal, a man bought a rose, a child licked an ice cream cone, and a genuine tradition was born, one I’d never forget: Amy always going overboard, me never, ever worthy of the effort. Happy anniversary, asshole.
      “I’m guessing—five years—she’s going to get really pissed,” Go continued. “So I hope you got her a really good present.”
      “On the to-do list.”
      “What’s the, like, symbol, for five years? Paper?”
      “Paper is first year,” I said. At the end of Year One’s unexpectedly wrenching treasure hunt, Amy presented me with a set of posh stationery, my initials embossed at the top, the paper so creamy I expected my fingers to come away moist. In return, I’d presented my wife with a bright red dime-store paper kite, picturing the park, picnics, warm summer gusts. Neither of us liked our presents; we’d each have preferred the other’s. It was a reverse O. Henry.
      “Silver?” guessed Go. “Bronze? Scrimshaw? Help me out.”
      “Wood,” I said. “There’s no romantic present for wood.”
      At the other end of the bar, Sue neatly folded her newspaper and left it on the bartop with her empty mug and a five-dollar bill. We all exchanged silent smiles as she walked out.
      “I got it,” Go said. “Go home, fuck her brains out, then smack her with your penis and scream, ‘There’s some wood for you, bitch!’ ”
      We laughed. Then we both flushed pink in our cheeks in the same spot. It was the kind of raunchy, unsisterly joke that Go enjoyed tossing at me like a grenade. It was also the reason why, in high school, there were always rumors that we secretly screwed. Twincest. We were too tight: our inside jokes, our edge-of-the-party whispers. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to say this, but you are not Go, you might misconstrue, so I will: My sister and I have never screwed or even thought of screwing. We just really like each other.
      Go was now pantomiming dick-slapping my wife.
      No, Amy and Go were never going to be friends. They were each too territorial. Go was used to being the alpha girl in my life, Amy was used to being the alpha girl in everyone’s life. For two people who lived in the same city—the same city twice: first New York, now here—they barely knew each other. They flitted in and out of my life like well-timed stage actors, one going out the door as the other came in, and on the rare occasions when they both inhabited the same room, they seemed somewhat bemused at the situation.
      Before Amy and I got serious, got engaged, got married, I would get glimpses of Go’s thoughts in a sentence here or there. It’s funny, I can’t quite get a bead on her, like who she really is. And: You just seem kind of not yourself with her. And: There’s a difference between really loving someone and loving the idea of her. And finally: The important thing is she makes you really happy.
      Back when Amy made me really happy.
      Amy offered her own notions of Go: She’s very … Missouri, isn’t she? And: You just have to be in the right mood for her. And: She’s a little needy about you, but then I guess she doesn’t have anyone else.
      I’d hoped when we all wound up back in Missouri, the two would let it drop—agree to disagree, free to be you and me. Neither did. Go was funnier than Amy, though, so it was a mismatched battle. Amy was clever, withering, sarcastic. Amy could get me riled up, could make an excellent, barbed point, but Go always made me laugh. It is dangerous to laugh at your spouse.
      “Go, I thought we agreed you’d never mention my genitalia again,” I said. “That within the bounds of our sibling relationship, I have no genitalia.”
      The phone rang. Go took one more sip of her beer and answered, gave an eyeroll and a smile. “He sure is here, one moment, please!” To me, she mouthed: “Carl.”Carl Pelley lived across the street from me and Amy…

For other examples of dialogue techniques in practice and the principles of writing good dialogue:

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist