Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Writing Good Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has because it's
so useful in so many ways: Speech gives vital information about a
character's background, social status, and education; it reveals to
us what a character is thinking (or at least, what he says that he is
thinking); it can advance the plot; it can provide exposition in a
dramatic fashion. But writing good dialogue is often one of the last
skills a writer masters, and some otherwise fine writers never seem
to understand the nuances of writing dialogue. I hope these hints
will be helpful as you try to make people talk on paper.

Dialogue is not written speech.

Successful dialogue is a strange mixture of the actual and the
imaginary. It doesn't sound exactly like real conversation (listen in
on a real conversation full of stuttering and unfinished ideas for a
few minutes and you'll hear why), but it reads like actual
conversation. That is, it should seem realistic, like the sort of
thing we might imagine these people saying in this sort of situation,
only better, more focused, more alluring. On the other hand, written
dialogue is not necessarily more revealing than speech. Good
dialogue, as my friend Bob Butler says, does not say everything the
character has on his mind at a given moment. It works toward the
truth in the same way that we generally do, by fits and starts. A
moment of revelation and great openness should generally be led up
to, should be an emotional peak of the story.

Writers use dialogue to build narrative tension.

Good dialogue has subtexts and tensions inherent in it. A story
includes dialogue primarily because it helps advance the action, and
if a scene is worth telling (as opposed to a quick summary--"Shelly
told Nicole to meet her at the zoo") it needs to be dramatically
interesting. For a tremendous example of this principle at work, read
Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," a story which is almost
nothing but dialogue. It's also good practice to try and construct a
scene where one character has a secret or something he/she must
communicate and we as readers know it. That plants the tension

Don't get overly creative with the mechanics of dialogue.

The old standby--"he said/she said"--is still the best way of
crediting dialogue, which after all is the purpose of dialogue tags.
Getting creative with the dialogue tags ("he expostulated" or "she
expounded") draws attention to the tags, not the dialogue. If you
want to add vividness to your writing and choose strong verbs, do it
elsewhere; I find I use "said" and "asked" almost exclusively. Vary
how often you employ a tag based on the situation (if there are only
two speakers and their mode of speech or emotional take on the scene
differentiates them, you don't need many; if you have a cocktail
party and the voices are all but interchangeable, you might need a
lot). Vary the placement of the tag in the sentence a bit so you can
add some variety to your style. And don't worry too much that there
seem to be too many dialogue tags or that they're too repetitive,
since readers will tend to read over them. It will probably be
apparent --maybe even ludicrous--if you're overdoing it or becoming
too repetitive with your dialogue tags.

Pass the potatoes.

That is, don't speechify; keep readers immersed in the action of a
scene of dialogue. My friend Elinor Lipman first discussed potato
passing for me, and I've seized on it as a valuable concept since--as
in Elinor's fiction--many of my characters converse around a dinner
table. Here's what we mean by it: When readers read long passages of
dialogue, they tend to be eased out of the dramatic flow of the story
and to lose contact with what is happening in the story as these
words are being delivered. But if the writer has someone pass the
potatoes (literally or figuratively) while that character talks, the
reader remembers that there are people sitting around the table
listening and reacting and perhaps getting ready to answer. So don't
present long blocks of dialogue (which are also unfriendly to the
reader's eye); break them up with action and reaction.

Use dialogue for exposition with caution.

While I remarked above that dialogue could be used to help readers
orient themselves in relation to the story and its characters, this
can be (and has been) done so badly so often that I offer words of
warning. Don't present lots of exposition at once under the guise of
dialogue. The following is a tremendously bad example of exposition
masquerading as a dramatic exchange:

"I've been so lonely since my husband Ted died in 1991 of cancer. We
had been happily married since 1965, when we met while I was working
in the Kresge department store on Canal Street in New Orleans."
"Of course, you poor dear. Thank goodness your son Frank immediately
left his job in Pittsburgh as a computer programmer to move back into
your house in the Garden District of New Orleans so that he could
help you with your clinical depression. Of course, now you are caring
for Frank because his wife deserted him and took the kids back to
Pennsylvania after the doctor discovered in a routine test that he
was HIV positive."

How can you avoid these exposition blues, especially if your dialogue
is not as egregiously bad as this? Follow this rule of thumb: Never
use dialogue to tell the reader things the characters already know.
In our real-life conversations,we refer to past events, certainly,
but we don't explain them because we already have them as a common
point of reference. It would be better instead to give out hints and
build up information gradually. We don't need to know everything that
has happened in the past to begin the story.


Blogger Richard Edward Noble said...

hi, just passing through

8:53 PM  

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