My thoughts on the craft this week relate directly to one of the Publishers Weekly review comments highlighted in Carol Hoenig’s article “Selling Cartoonish Characters with Wooden Dialogue.”
I wanted to speak to that this week simply because, for some writers, dialogue is one of those literary tar pits. We all know that characters must speak in order for them to become real; that is, of course, providing that they are not disabled in some way that would prevent them from speaking. That is a whole other issue, but having a character speak is much more complicated than putting something in quotes and following it up with the word: said. Yea, we could throw in a thousand adverbs to indicate the mood of the conversation, the tone and attitude of the speakers, and we can even change that said to something else, like shouted or whimpered … but that really won’t fix the problems most writers have with dialogue, and oftentimes, those easy tricks actually end up making the dialogue worse. So then what? Well, every writer needs to be a good listener and a little bit psychologist/sociologist. Why? Because we have to listen and understand, not only what people say, but also what they aren’t saying. That isn't always the same thing.
When I was a kid, I used to love contemplating humanity through art. I could stare at a painting for hours creating in my mind all the various conversation the subjects of the painting could be having with each other. The painting above by Bingham, for example, is titled “Fur Traders on the Missouri” and it dates to 1845. In reality, we don’t even need to know they are fur traders; we don’t need to know it’s the Missouri River, or that it’s 1845. We can imagine the day, the river, the solitude … how quiet it must be. We get all that from the description. But when you look at the two men, they are full of expression, not only in their faces, but in their body language as well. We might imagine that the man in the hat is the trader and that the young man might be his apprentice. The apprentice is rapt, having slung himself forward in a completely relaxed and attentive posture, as if the older man has been enthralling him with a tall tale from his youth. On the other hand, it might be a father and his devoted son. We can get all that from the action in the scene. Good dialogue encompasses the entire scene: the words and the action. There are always bits of action interspersed throughout the dialogue, gestures being made or not made, words being said and not said. Of course, too much detail again will stifle the flow of the dialogue and too little will render the conversation emotionless, so it all takes a bit of practice to get those beats right. We see and feel people when they speak to us, we don’t just hear them, and in this case, showing us the emotion is better than telling us what the characters are feeling. We have to let the reader experience the characters emotionally, intellectually, and physically.
There are no hard and fast rules for dialogue other than a writer should be honest and be true to your characters. Everything else really depends on the effect you are trying to create. Keep your dialogue poignant, use it to further your story and open up your characters. Pages of idle chitchat are boring. Show the readers just enough detail to make the scene feel realistic; don’t over define the action or emotions. Keep your beats in time with the ebb and flow of the conversation, every conversation has its mood. Don’t clutter your dialogue with conversational verbs or adverbs. Using is "said" is perfectly fine, and if the reader can determine the person speaking, then the dialogue tag is unnecessary and ends up being just something to trip over, ruining the flow. Be careful with this though. In first person narratives, a dialogue tag is important, especially if you combine one character's speach in the same paragraph with the first person narrator's thoughts. Be sure to punctuate your dialogue tags properly as well. If you don't know how, learn how, and do it right quick.
Now I write novellas and flash fiction in which the characters are generally struggling with deep emotional issues. Cognative Dissonance is always present in my stories, so I keep the dialogue strictly to those scenes where I want to reveal something about how the characters relate to each other or feel about themselves and the world they are often forced to inhabit. Sometimes I have a character articulate what they are feeling, and sometimes I don’t say anything at all, using just body language instead -- a beat. Sometimes -- rarely -- I use an adverb if it works, and sometimes I just use said or nothing at all. My characters also tend to be very crass when they are with each other but not in their work-a-day lives. I make sure my dialogue reflects that duality.
I have a few things I like to keep in mind when writing dialogue: Are the words your characters use -- their language and their emotions -- true to them? How often do you interrupt your dialogue, and does it fit the mood of the scene? Are your descriptive beats mundane like lighting a cigarette, looking out the window, or eating something, and do your characters do those things too often? And lastly, do your descriptive beats expose your character? Yes, we want that. Actually, dialogue is all about exposing the characters and exposing how they relate to each other. Let them be who they are and steer clear of clichés.
I was listening to a comedy show while washing dishes the other night, and in one line of dialogue I got all I needed to know about the speaker and the two other characters she was speaking to, without even seeing them. It went like this: “I get paid for what I do, and not in animal pelts like you two butt-fuckers.” That tells us a great deal about who she is and her perception of the other two people in the room. Then after watching the scene, I got all the body language and silent reflection I needed from the other two characters, who said nothing in the scene at all. That’s good stuff.