Dialogue: Friend, or Foe?

Today we answer the question laid out in the post title. As a writer, is dialogue your friend, or your foe? The answer is foe, of course.

I’m just kidding. The answer is obviously friend. I’m sure you know, learned student of the written word that you are, that dialogue is an incredibly important aspect of a book. And I’ll be honest here, it’s also one of the things that I just can’t seem to get right. I struggle regularly to write convincing dialogue, especially on the first time through a story. It just sounds stilted and, well… is shitty too strong a word? No, I think that shitty is quite an apt description, actually. I write shitty dialogue. Now why it’s shitty is a question that demands an answer.

I often find that I’m just writing dialogue for dialogue’s sake, and that’s a problem. Dialogue is a tool. One of many tools at your disposal as a writer. And as a tool, it needs to be used properly. Writing dialogue just to have quotation marks on your page is about as useful as using a hammer just for the sake of swinging one around. Yeah, it’s neat at first–hell, it might even end up being a lot of fun. But in the end you’re just going to be surrounded by a bunch of broken, messed-up shit, and no good explanation for how or why it got there.

So let’s straighten things out.

Dialogue is obviously conversation between two or more characters–between two or more people. So let’s think. How do people talk to each other? And why? Well, the why is not always as clear as you might think. Often people will engage in conversation to discuss something important, that’s true. But more often people talk to avoid discussing something important. Sometimes talking is merely a way to fill silence. Awkward small talk, and empty conversation are important aspects of dialogue that should not be ignored in a book. Your goal is to write realistic characters, right? Too often writers have their characters speak only when it is expository to the plot. I am myself a victim of this trend. It’s tempting, because you want these bastards to move the damn story along. But remember, these are people talking. Their character and personality needs to show through in their speech. Here’s an example of plain old dialogue:

“Where are you going?” Betty asked.

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar. I don’t know.”

“Ray, you can’t… Not now.”

“I’ve done everything you asked, Betty. I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests. I don’t know what else you want from me. I’m going.”

“Ray!”

So there. That’s some straight dialogue that I just made up. It’s okay, I guess. But it needs more flavor, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes back-and-forth dialogue is good. Hemingway sure did plenty of it, and it worked for him. But the words are not always the focus of the conversation. If this written dialogue is supposed to represent two people talking, then we have to think about the way in which they might speak. Right now our selection reads like a bit from a play, and one with very little direction at that. In a play or movie, the actors and director bring a lot to the dialogue. Body language, tone of voice–there are a lot more factors to a conversation than just lines after lines of dialogue. So let’s try again, this time inserting a little bit of description.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests.” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty. I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

Now see, I like that a bit better. Don’t get me wrong. Straight dialogue can be nice for circumstances in which the speech is the most important aspect, but more often than not that isn’t the case. When we speak, we say a lot more with our hands, eyes, and tones than we do with our words alone. I mentioned Hemingway above, and I often think of him when writing dialogue. I recall hearing once that he did not think much of descriptive dialogue tags. You’ll find his dialogue scenes rarely flirt with any language more complicated than “he/she said.” He didn’t think anything more was necessary. The man was adamant about this simplicity of language, and I admire him for that.

But he’s wrong. Or well… he’s not entirely right. You see, we don’t just say what we mean to say. People aren’t that simple. Sometimes the expression you wear when you speak reveals more about your words than the words themselves. But why write, “‘I really don’t know,’ he said. He smiled” when “‘I really don’t know,’ he smiled” is so much more to the point? And sometimes the tone and volume of your voice express what you really want to say, even when your tongue is unwilling to speak the truth. So obviously the meaning of the words “Please leave” is drastically different when the tag reads “he snarled” rather than “he pleaded.”

Beyond dialogue tags, there are lots of things that we do when we speak that affect the feeling of the conversation. This is where simple description comes into play. Nodding and smiling out of sincere interest is different from stiffly nodding while forcing your clenched jaw into a rictus grin. Staring out a window while you speak doesn’t convey the same feeling that frenetically pacing the floorboards does. Those things are important to the conversation as a whole, and you can’t afford to omit them or forget them entirely.

In addition to description and dialogue tags, you do have to consider the words being spoken. Rather, you have to consider the words not spoken. Would Ray and Betty say all of those things to one another? Would they mention the doctor and the fertility tests so explicitly? Either Ray or his wife is infertile. They know this, even if the reader doesn’t. Taking this into account is where the real atmosphere of your conversation is cultivated. There’s a certain satisfaction to discovering the topic of a written discussion rather than having it handed to you. Not only that, but if realism is your goal, then you must take into account the way that real people speak. Betty and Ray have known each other for years–I guess that they’re either married or in a committed relationship, though I wouldn’t put it past that bastard Ray to cheat on his poor lady. He really is a jerk. In any case, people don’t speak in completely expository sentences. They leave out details, because they both know the details already. Or they skirt around the details deliberately because they’re made uncomfortable by the topic at hand. So let’s change our little scene once more.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I did everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to see… him. I took the tests. I let that bastard poke his nose into my personal life.”

“He’s not a bastard, Ray. It’s his job to ask.”

“He’s a nosy prick who can’t mind his own business!” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. Betty was looking at him with quivering lips and eyes wet with fresh tears. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty.”

“I want to have a family,” Betty whispered. Ray felt his jaw tighten.

“I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

So instead of exposition, we have hints and little details that clue the reader in on what’s really happening.

You can go too far in realism. The “um”s and “ah”s of real conversation are often too much in written dialogue. The conversation on the page has to flow, so a strict sense of realism is out of place when it distracts from the importance of the dialogue itself. But overall, writing dialogue this way gives the reader a lot more than simple, direct words. Dialogue can’t exist merely to fill up space on a page. It has to tell the reader a lot of things at once. Ideally, it should drive the plot, build the characters, and set the mood of the piece or scene all at once. In most circumstances, it will only do two, or even just one of those things. But part of learning how to write well is learning how to say as little as necessary to tell the story you want. Economy of language means a lot to the efficacy of your writing, and dialogue is no exception.

Well, I think I’ve just given myself a few ideas, and hopefully this post did the same for you. You know when you try to explain something that you don’t know yourself, and find a suitable answer in the process? Well I’m about to go off and write some truly spectacular dialogue, then bask in the warm glow of my revelation. Peace, my children. May your conversations be ever filled with pregnant pauses, tense stares, and loaded questions.

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