A Few Words on Dialogue (Part 1)
But first, let’s talk about intention.
Intention is an intrinsic characteristic of great writing. Skilled writers, if you study their work for technique, are intentional writers. Each word, phrase, paragraph and punctuation mark; each aspect of a character, every event, each conversation and every setting is chosen for a purpose and for creative effect.
Intentional writing, then, is one key to brilliant story.
To write great dialogue requires intention. Emerging writers sometimes approach this device with a bit of a shrug. Part of the reason for this indifference lies in the fact that we use conversation as our main form of communication and, therefore, when we approach character dialogue, we think it’ll be a cinch because, ‘Well, you know, like, I talk to people every day.’
The reality is far different. Writing convincing dialogue that sounds natural, accurately conveys character, and advances the story is very difficult. And this is before we try anything fancy such as writing a story using only dialogue, or capturing the idiosyncrasies of a particular era (past or future), or inventing a whole language (try Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for a brilliant example of this. Read an extract here).
Good dialogue is tricky to write because it needs to sound natural to the reader even though it is highly contrived by the writer.
Here’s a challenge for you: go to your favourite place where people gather to relax and listen to the conversations (this is call ‘observation’, not eavesdropping, so it’s okay). What you will find is that real conversations are messy. Like the set of Christmas lights you put away so neatly last year, they will be tangled and convoluted, and shot through with repetition, irrelevancies, strange pauses and dead ends.
This kind of dialogue doesn’t assist a story because, while real people may get to the crux of a conversation at some point in their interaction, our characters have a limited timeframe (i.e. the length of our short story.). As such, the dialogue we write must be purposeful and carefully constructed to move our story towards the climax. Therefore, we must choose every word our characters say with care, and if they start to waffle on with unnecessary dribble, we must gag them until they have something meaningful to say. For example:
‘Hi Casey, how are you today?’
‘Oh okay, I guess. How are you, Sam?’
‘I’m good. Is something bothering you?’
‘Well, no, not really. I’m fine.’
Bored yet? I am. Let’s try something more interesting and intentional:
‘Hey Casey, how freaking awesome is today?’
‘About as awesome as a plane crash.’
‘Really? Why the sour grapes, girl?’
‘Dunno. Just one of those days, I guess, What’s got you buzzing?’
In this dialogue, the same information is given – one of the characters is having a bad day – but, now, we’ve moved away from generic responses and have some personality coming through, which provides an emotional delineation between the characters. Note the natural flow of the conversation and the way Casey turns the focus of the dialogue away from herself, opening up possibilities in the story. Note also the language used; what does it tell you about the age, gender, and relationship between the characters?
Good dialogue works hard to ADD to the story; if it is not showing the reader something about character, theme, setting or a plot event, delete it
Showing, not telling:
One of the most useful aspects of dialogue is its ability show rather than tell. The moment characters begin to speak, they are showing who they are. As such, dialogue is an active form of writing. Keep in mind, too, that dialogue is usually accompanied by gestures and facial expressions. These also assist with showing character and conveying emotion. While you are – surreptitiously – listening to conversations, watch the faces and body language of the people you’re observing and incorporate these into your character’s dialogue.
Dialogue is also a great way of showing a reader aspects of character such as educational levels, cultural background, employment, moral inclinations, prejudices and preference etc. In this way, as happens in the real world, our characters ‘reveal’ themselves naturally as opposed the writer giving the reader information. So, rather than, Vivian Smyth is a doctor of paediatrics, who has her own practice, we could write:
‘Good morning, Dr Smyth. Abigail Henson is in exam room two.’
Vivian took the clipboard from Sara and glanced over the notes. ‘Asthma again?’
‘Third attack this month,’ Sara replied, her tone neutral.
Dr Smyth frowned. ‘Did her mother bring her in?’ she asked, remembering the ugly scene with the child’s father on her last visit. Some parents just won’t be told, she thought, as Sara nodded.
This dialogue shows the reader what Vivian Smyth does for work and introduces a potential plot complication, while also offering insights into the personalities of the receptionist, the child's parents. As such, it is hard-working and intentional dialogue.
There is much more to discuss when it comes to dialogue, but I will finish up here and give you time to consider the intentionality of your writing, particularly when it comes to the words you place in your character’s mouths.
Until next time,