What’s That You Say?

Dialogue, conversation between two characters, is often one of the toughest aspects of story-writing, and yet it is a great tool for characterization, readability, and pacing. It’s also one of the best ways to improve your fiction because, as James Scott Bell says:

Sodden, overwritten dialogue sticks out of a manuscript like a garrulous uncle at Thanksgiving.

In order to make your dialogue work, the first thing you need to do is throw out everything you know — or think you know — about proper grammar and good sentence structure, because that’s just not how people talk. They use a sort of verbal shorthand, leaving out names and directions, and inserting all kinds of subtext that others who are involved in the conversation have no trouble understanding. These spoken communications are colored by age, geographical location, culture, education and purpose. There is a lot that goes into the recipe!

The second thing you need to do is develop an ear for dialogue. Dialogue is part of your writing voice, an extension of your narrative prose, if you will. Some writers have a natural ability, while others need to work at it. Listening to people talking helps, but while you’re listening you must keep in mind that duplicating real speech on paper just doesn’t work. Not only do people tend to say dull things, but those things are generally accompanied by smiles, handshakes, memories, physical or emotional reactions, tone of voice…

In other words, your dialogue has to be interesting by itself. It has to be better than conversation.

I am going to talk about some of the Do’s and Don’ts of dialogue, and since it could make for a pretty lengthy discussion, I’m going to break it down into parts. First, we’re going to take a look at Unnecessary Dialogue. Anything that can be done more effectively with simple narrative is unnecessary dialogue. For instance, you never want use dialogue to fill up space on the page, or to make explanations that could be covered more effectively using narrative. If your dialogue isn’t advancing the plot, revealing character, providing information, or increasing tension, it’s a pretty good guess that you don’t need it.

Introductions are a good example.

“James, I’d like you to meet William Jones,” Barry said. “William, Mister James Smith.” 

James reached out to shake Jones’s hand. “Good evening, Mister Jones,” he said quite seriously. 

“Hello, Mister Smith.” 

“This lovely young lady is Eleanor Smith, Jim’s niece. Eleanor, Mister Jones.” 

“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Smith,” Jones smiled and took her hand in his. 

“The pleasure is all mine, Mister Jones,” she said.

Booooring. Much simpler and easier all around to simply write: “Barry introduced James and his niece to Jones,” and get on with the story!

You also don’t want to give your characters the job of saying something you can say better yourself. I want to use an example from Gary Provost’s writing, just because he does it so well. He discusses a section from his novel, Fatal Dosage, in which his character, Anne Capute, a defendant in a murder trial, is approaching the courthouse for the first time:

“The courthouse is kind of scary, isn’t it?” Anne said to Pat. “It looks like a big granite monster that’s going to gobble me up.” 

“I suppose,” Pat said, “but at a time like this everything is frightening.”

“Yes,” she said, “even you. You look like you’re on your way to accept and award. With your three-piece suit and your brief case, you’re really one of them, aren’t you?” 

“What do you think is in thei briefcase, Anne? The secrets of the bomb?”

Provost could have gone on in the same vein and created an acceptable dialogue scene, but it wouldn’t have packed the punch he could give it in narrative, and could not have emphasized Anne’s sense of loneliness and isolation the way narrative did:

As Anne followed Pat Piscitelli along the courthouse path that sunny morning she trembled inside. She felt as if the courthouse were a huge granite monster waiting to gobble her up. The building was frightening. But then, she thought, everything is frightening. Even Pat, walking ahead of her in lively steps as if he were on his way to accept an award. He wore an expensive three-piece suit, and a brief case hung from his hand. He seemed to be one of “them” and that’s what frightened her. The brief case reminded Ann of the man who follows the President around, carrying a brief case hand-cuffed to his wrist. The secrets of the bomb are in Pat’s brief case, she thought, and she wondered who would win the war.

When the characters already know certain information, but that information is revealed to the reader in the course of a conversation, the dialogue is contrived — and unnecessary.

“Hello, John, my best friend since the seventh grade! Are we going to go bowling at the Lucky Strike Lanes and then go to Leary’s Pub on Ninth Street for beers afterward like we do every Wednesday night?” 

“Yes, Roger, my business partner and confidante. You know I would never let you down, though maybe we should invite our wives, Rachel and Linda, who think we are ignoring them and using this time to get away from them rather than polishing up on our game so that we can compete in the yearly Duffy City Bowling Championship.”

Yeah, just… don’t do that. It hurts. 
Your dialogue should flow naturally, without disturbing the reader. Make it lean, make it to the point. Ask yourself if the information being spoken is known to the listener. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then is the repeated information serving the speaker’s need? The dialogue becomes heavy-handed (unnecessary) when the speaker starts tossing in known information that doesn’t serve his purposes. For example, look at the “conversation” above between John and Roger. If they’ve been best friends since the seventh grade, I’m pretty sure they know that, as well as the name of the bowling alley and the location of the pub. I’ll bet they both even know the names of their wives.
All right, now you give it a shot. How would you convey that information outside of dialogue?
Keep writing, and stay tuned to this channel blog for the next exciting episode of “What’s That You Say?”!

2 thoughts on “What’s That You Say?

Leave a Reply