What I Know About Dialogue
‘… and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?'
The alert reader will recall this line from the opening paragraph of Alice in Wonderland, and will further recall that it is the lack of dialogue in her sister's book which causes Alice to wander away and fall down a rabbit hole. Lucky for us, but consider the author of the sister's book. Presumably Alice's sister continues her reading, and so he has not lost his entire audience, but to Alice, and to the rest of us, he will forever remain anonymous and unread.
Readers like dialogue - the majority of them demand it - and it is the first thing they will criticize if it doesn't suit them. They may know nothing about plots or settings or themes, but they know how to talk, and this is one area of fiction where they believe they know as much as you do, if not more.
From all this we may conclude that, unless we are good at pictures, it behooves us to write dialogue, and to write it well.
I am no more an expert than the average reader, and I daresay everything I know about dialogue has been learned from reading it, and from being a conversationalist, but for what it's worth, this is what I know:
1) Characters should not go on and on.
If you are Robertson Davies, you might write an entire trilogy in quotation marks, but I'm guessing you're not, and so you should keep in mind that it is just as rude in fiction as it is in real life to monopolize the conversation. As a general rule, if a character speaks for more than five printed lines, I prefer to paraphrase, with just a line of dialogue on either end.
2) In life, if you say a few sentences to someone, they're likely to respond to the first thing you said rather than the last.
That's because, after your first sentence, they're waiting for you to shut up so they can respond. In fiction, the reader tends to carry the last words they've read into the next sentence, and so you want to arrange your dialogue so that each character responds to the last sentence of the other's speech.
3) Fictional dialogue will not bear the repetition that occurs in real life.
Consider this example from literature:
When the Big Bad Wolf says, "Little Pig, Little Pig, let me come in," he asks once, is refused, and proceeds to blow the house down. In real life, when the Big Bad Wolf shows up, there's likely to be a prolonged argument, with a great deal of repetition on both sides, which will go on indefinitely until the wolf finally blows the house down or the neighbors call the police. With that in mind, we can appreciate how admirably the repetition of the phrase, "Little Pig, Little Pig," conveys the wolf's persistence, and then the author gets on with it.
3a) Of course there will be times when characters are called upon to repeat themselves, but in general, the correct response to the fictional question, "What did you say?" is, "You heard me."
4) This point is not about dialogue, per se, but about tags.
A character may announce, tell, reply, object, point out, argue, whine, whimper, moan, or shriek, but mostly they should just say it. Other methods of expression, such as chirping, chuckling, or chortling, should be used sparingly, if at all. Most undesirable are tags which do not denote speech, such as "he grinned," or "he condescended."
The reason he said/she said is so popular is that the reader can take it in without really reading it. When you replace he said/she said with other words, it can trip the reader up, and slow down the dialogue. People say you shouldn't use adverbs, but there's a reason we have adverbs, and I believe most readers would prefer to take in a single adverb than to stumble on a strange verb where he said/she said ought to be.
4a) About adverbs.
Many people object to adverbs on principle, but, as noted above, they have their place. In dialogue, they are most effective when the tone of the speaker's voice is at odds with the words they are saying, as in, "It was a great party," she said sadly.
5) Dialogue should not be used as exposition.
It's nice when the dialogue serves the dual function of characterizing the speaker while it conveys important information to the reader, but there's an unfortunate trend in inexperienced writers toward planting the back story in the dialogue, so that characters end up saying things like, "That's my father, who was abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage." Perhaps there is a plausible situation in which one character might speak this line to another, and if you can think of one, you're welcome to it.
6) Resist the urge to make your dialogue snappy at the expense of realism.
Some characters are quick-witted, and they have a comeback for everything, but if you're faced with two possibilities, one characteristic and the other merely clever, go with the response that is true to the character.
7) If it works, don't fix it.
Finally, I would like to say a word about magic. I would like to, but what is there to say? I once had a reader tell me that she didn't find my dialogue believable, because she'd never heard people talk to each other the way my characters did. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, "Well, what do you think, that I just make this stuff up?" and then I thought, "Wait a minute," and I found myself too confused to say anything at all. To this day I'm not sure if I make it up or not. Occasionally a character blurts out a line that I wasn't expecting, and invariably, that line is perfect. Accept these gifts when they come, and don't question them too closely, is my advice.
And if all else fails, learn to do pictures.
|This article is written by Book Shed author Patricia J. Delois . Her debut novel 'Bufflehead Sisters' is now available for order both online and through conventional booksellers. She recently signed a two-book deal with a major publisher and a new version of Bufflehead Sisters is due for publication in 2009.|