Dialogue

It is important to remember that psychologists say that a very large percentage of communication is non-verbal, yet on the printed page all you have are the words. There is no tone, no facial expressions, no hand gestures, nothing that in normal face-to-face communication can drastically affect the message being communicated. Because all you have are the words, you must choose them very carefully. A conversation in a novel is not exactly as it would be in "real life". Because you are lacking the things you would have in real life, you make up for it with your word choice. You also must be aware that you can't bore the reader, thus your written dialogue is usually more concise than spoken.

Purposes of dialogue: You use dialogue for many reasons beyond the simple fact that your plot calls for a conversation at a certain point. Dialogue is a good way to overcome limitations of some of the tools you are using. For example, if you are writing a first person detective story, dialogue is useful in giving your main character (and in turn the reader) important information. It is also useful in imparting backdrop information or exposition (more on this in the chapter on where to start your novel).

Dialogue reveals a great amount of information about your characters. It is their chance to express themselves directly to the reader. Make sure, though, that the voice they use is consistent. If you want to check this, go back through whatever you've written and highlight everything each character says, using different colors for the different characters, then trace each character's dialogue by itself, making sure it is the same voice. Also, make sure that all your characters don't sound the same. Dialogue can reveal motivation, which is critical to character. Remember, though, just like in real life you have to consider whether what a person says is the truth.

Dialogue advances the plot. It can also sharpen conflict between characters. Another thing it can be used for is to control the pace of the story. Sometimes if you are going full speed ahead with action, dialogue can be a good way to slow things down a little and give the reader a breather. But it more often creates suspense and intensifies the conflict in the story.

Movies tend to beat dialogue to death, always searching for that greater line. Who can forget Clint Eastwood's "Go ahead, make my day."? While your dialogue should keep the readers' attention, don't beat them to death with stilted dialogue.

Dialogue must fit the characters but try to avoid excessive slang as it usually interrupts the smoothness even though it is natural for that character and locale. Think about it: the reader is going along, your smooth prose has them absorbed in the story, and all of sudden the writing changes to slang. It can be disconcerting. Again there are places where it works, but understand what the disadvantage is and weigh it before using.

I liken this to going to see a play by Shakespeare and not being able to see the stage, but only being able to hear. So you have a friend sitting next to you who describes all the action. I don't know about you, but it takes me several minutes to get used to listening to 'olde English'. But what if my friend is describing the scene in 'new' English to me? Would I be able to keep track of everything?

Dialogue tags: A dialogue tag is any words you use to indicate who is speaking. A tendency is to feel that you have to use terms such as "he exclaimed"; "she gasped"; "he shrieked"; etc. etc., to make up for your lack of tone, gestures, etc. It can, and often is, be easily overdone. I noticed an interesting thing while reading Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove: in almost every instance of dialogue, he just simply wrote the word "said". Seemed to work for him. Use strong "dialogue tags" when absolutely necessary, but don't overdo it or it will take away from the words themselves. This is very common mistake among new writers.

Make sure the reader knows who is talking. I've seen exchanges where there was no indication who was speaking for seven or eight lines and while (with just two characters) one assumes that you are switching character each time you hit a new quotation mark, it can become irritating to the reader to have to keep track.

If you have more than one male in a scene you can't use "he" even if in the context of the writing it's pretty evident who is speaking. Same with more than one female. Also, don't have bystanders who you forget about. I've read scenes with three people in them, where one says nothing and sort of fades into nothingness by the end, then startlingly reappears at the end of the dialogue.

Dialogue is usually much shorter in a novel than it would be in real life. There are several reasons for that but mostly it is because people expend numerous words in real life to make a point. Words that in print would quickly cause the reader to lose interest.

An example of how difficult it is to write dialogue is an online chat room. When people are forced to use only the words, communication often breaks down and misunderstandings abound.

Other points to consider on dialogue:

1. I said above that you can use dialogue to give expository information but if you do it so obviously, then guess what—the reader will notice and be distracted. This is also true of films. For example, Jim turns to his wife Marge and says: "Gee, Marge, your uncle Bill, the famous artist, is coming from his home in France, to visit us next week." Now, you did give the reader important information about Bill here: that he's an artist, Marge's uncle, and he lives in France. But. Don't you think that Marge would know her own uncle is an artist and lives in France? Do it another way.

2. Although dialogue in a novel is usually much more concise and to the point than dialogue in real life, be sure it doesn't appeared stilted or formal. Your characters can use contractions.

3. While you should be wary of dialogue tags, there are times you have to get across more emotion or attitude than the words themselves can convey. Make up for the lack with the actual scene, with action and setting rather than dialogue tags. Also, there are times in extended conversations where the reader can get so caught up in the dialogue they lose track of where the characters are at and the environment around the people. Occasionally, you should throw in a little bit of action in the midst of your dialogue. For example, when you are talking to someone on the phone, do you sit totally still? Or do you move about? Play racquetball while on your portable? When you talk to your boss, does he sit totally still on the other side of his desk and respond to your questions like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation? Keep the reader oriented to the place the characters are speaking are in, and what they are doing. You can give more emphasis to your dialogue by having them make movements or gestures but don't overdo it.

4. You can use dialogue to give expository information that is necessary for the story but beware of slowing your action down too much with this. This is a place where you must consider using your author's voice to give narrative information instead of contriving scenes where your characters have to sit around and discuss something in order to give that information to the reader (I should know this as I just got an editorial letter back on one of my books with just this point.).

5. If you have only two characters in a scene, the reader knows when they hit an end quotation mark that they are going to the other character; however, you should only do about three or four exchanges like that before reorienting the reader as to who is speaking. We've all read scenes where we had to go back up and count the end quote marks to figure out who is talking. Don't make the reader work that hard.

Keep the story flowing. Don't stop the story to let your characters have a discussion and then jump-start it at the end of the discussion.

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