Dialogue in fiction is simply communication between characters. Despite human beings' penchant to talk to ourselves (and to animals and inanimate objects), dialogue can only occur between two or more sentient beings. Anything else is a monologue.|
But dialogue is not simply chatting back and forth. Characters conversing is not enough reason for fictional talk. The astute writer will use dialogue for a purpose - of which these are particularly critical:
1. To advance the plot and move story events along;
As you can imagine, those five purposes can be difficult to carry off. Not every writer has a natural flair for dialogue. In fact, the storyteller who so ably relates vignettes and humorous tales verbally is often the worst at actually getting believable words on the page.
2. To reveal character including goals, strengths, weaknesses, and journeys, and to both complicate and explicate the characters' situations, story world, and individual arcs;
3. To develop conflict (arguments, disagreements, and mixed emotions about what tack to take next);
4. To give a sense of time, place, and mood;
5. To present information in a lively, entertaining way by breaking up description and exposition.
Dialogue Usage to Avoid
Prattle and Filler
In every case, avoid dialogue that does not advance the scene, contribute to the plot, or deepen the reader's understanding of the characters and their actions. Don't let your characters chat just to be cute or clever or because you think "That's what people do in real life."
Chatter doesn't fly in fiction. Every conversation needs to have a reason. Just because everyday conversation is filled with so much blather doesn't mean we want to reproduce that exactly in fiction. Get the dialogue in, get to the point, and get out.
Flat or Unnatural Word Usage
Dialogue needs to sound natural, even though if you compare it to real-life speech, it's actually almost shorthand.
Over-Using Names in Conversation
- Use contractions to avoid stiff-sounding dialogue.
- Use slang that's appropriate.
- Keep words like "however" to a minimum, and stay away from the kinds of words and legalese that no one ever uses in real-life dialogue (unless they're in a 19th century novel): heretofore, hence, therefore, to wit, herein, aforesaid, aforementioned, etc.
- Choose words specifically for the personality of each character. A scientist's dialogue is going to be different from a yoga instructor's. A six-year-old will have a different vocabulary than her mother. Friends need to have their own specific speech patterns and word choices.
- Avoid excessive use of dialect - instead, try to give a flavor of the pattern of speech relevant for the characters and time.
While it's important to differentiate who is speaking, in real life, people spend little time actually saying one another's names when they talk. I call overuse of names "The Horatio Cain Effect." On the TV program CSI: Miami, the main character played by David Caruso has this amazingly irritating way of constantly overusing names: "Well, Steve, you know you have to let her go because, Steve, if you do anything to harm her, I'll hunt you down like a dog. Step away from her now, Steve, or I swear, I'll blow your head off. Do you hear me, Steve? You can get out of this alive, Steve. Put down the knife and walk away alive, Steve..."
Only use names enough to keep the reader on track with who is speaking, and otherwise, unless there is a reason for one character using another's name, delete them.
Excessive or Overly Dramatic Dialogue Tags
Said and asked are perfectly good dialogue tags. Only occasionally might you need to use tags such as yelled, shouted, stammered, cried out, screamed, whispered, muttered, and so forth.
Frequent use of flowery tags only calls attention to the tags, not to your good prose. Your dialogue should be written in such a way that the reader can discern tone, volume, and character mood/feeling without a lot of exclaiming, stating, responding, insinuating, hedging, and hissing. Tags such as chuckled, chortled, averred, and opined sound ridiculous. Don't use them at all.
Also, if you're forced to use an adverbial tag to tell the reader how the character is speaking, make sure it comes early on in the sentence. What's the point of a long dramatic speech with a tag AFTER it? Readers aren't going to read it the way you want, and then they have to go back and recast what's just been read, which pulls them right out of your fictional dream.
For instance, the intent of this sentence is completely unclear:
"You're wrong—totally off. I can't handle the details or the stress or the pain this is causing, and I can't do it anymore."
Is the speaker angry? Weary? Resigned? Smugly arguing? Whispering? Manically shrieking? It's hard to tell without some cue early on in the sentence to guide the reader to the tone you want heard. If it's not clear, the reader is forced to assume, and often, the assumption won't be what you had intended.
Unclear: "You're wrong—totally off. I can't handle the details or the stress or the pain this is causing, and I can't do it anymore," he said, his voice rising until he was screaming.
Clear: "You're wrong—totally off," he said, his voice rising. "I can't handle the details or the stress or the pain this is causing." He rose and screamed, "I can't do it anymore!"
For the sake of clear and direct dialogue, descriptive tags and stage direction are always welcome.
Repetitive Exposition That Over-Explains or Re-Tells
Don't show dialogue in which characters explain what has already happened, and make sure you greatly limit the repeating of information the reader has already encountered, whether it came by dialogue or scene. You already used up your quota when you dramatized the event.
Also, always avoid this sort of repetition: John closed the window because it was cold. "It's too cold," he said.
Readers are very clever, especially when they have experienced a scene with your characters. Even the events of a half-dramatized scene shouldn't be told by a character unless new information is being added. This is where expository shortcuts come in handy:
- She quickly gave him the lowdown.
- He explained what had happened.
- She told him the details.
When we write first drafts with dialogue, the work may not initially be as direct or effective as it needs to be. You'll find that polishing and honing are critical. Look at all your dialogue with a close eye, use the guidelines above, and see if you can make your characters' words and voices sing.
© 2009 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.