by Leonard Bishop
One of the most important devices a writer uses is dialogue. Writing a novel without a plentiful amount of dialogue is like trying to create a gourmet omelet with yokeless eggs. To the reader, dialogue is just a flow of statement issuing from the characters. To the writer, dialogue contains many concealed functions which he must control and direct.
There are six basic functions for dialogue in fiction writing. (1) to inform.(2) to reveal attitudes.(3) to express responses.(4) to make inquiries.(5) to offer insight.(6) to change situations.
To inform: “I’m flying to Paris for some escargot – that’s snails.”
Attitudes: “Abe Lincoln was a repressive depressive, with bad teeth.”
Responses: “Don’t sniff at me. I just bathed and deodorized.”
Inquiry: “Is the governor really a child molester?”
Insight: “Charlie is rich, I agree. But he’s not intellectual.”
Changing situations: “You think I’m the killer, but I’m not. Start thinking about Gimpy. Remember Gimpy? Think on him.”
“Gimpy is dead. How can a dead man be a killer?”
“Who saw Gimpy die? Was Gimpy’s body ever found?”
“Hey, that’s right. Yeah. That changes things.”
If a writer is not gifted in creating dialogue that sounds authentic, keep it short. Brevity often covers up the writer’s deficiency. Do not keep the reader’s eye and ear on the dialogue for too long. Set yourself a rule: If the character speaks longer than four average sentences, he is delivering a speech. Have another character interrupt him with a question or contradict him, or add to his information. Break up this dialogue with an external description, or physical action.
Avoid the natural interjections of real speech.(Ahem, um, uh, but-but-but, etc). In the speech of fiction, they are cumbersome, annoying, and indicate either amateurism or negligence.
The sound and tone of dialogue (anger, resentment, command, plea, passion, etc.) is established by the descriptive prose that precedes it.
Example: He slammed his fist on the table, shouting, “Stop putting sugar in my coffee.” Or: She kicked off her shoes and giggled, “Prune juice gets me so sexy.” Or: Sunny’s lower lip quivered, “I didn’t stab the Canary, I swear.” Or: The preacher wept, “Sinners.”
The speaking of a character carries more conviction and immediacy than a description of what a character says. “I’m innocent!” Is stronger than “He declared that he was innocent.” Dialogue should be described only when the characters are revealing important information about themselves, or their circumstance. Described dialogue diminishes its value.
Example: Emma gripped the ships railing and said she would not move. Waves slammed against the hull, causing the yacht to buck. Jim stood beside her and said he would not leave her. He braced himself when he saw another wave coming towards them.
Described dialogue does not individualize or offer emphasis. It is not separated from the fixtures of the sea, the boat, the rail. What the characters are feeling and doing and saying and what is happening is blended. The description of dialogue is muted and always one second behind. Stated dialogue is instant, and visible.
Example: Jim stood beside Emma as she gripped the ship’s railing. “I’m standing here and I won’t move. Let the storm rage – let it!” Jim trembled. “All right, darling, I’ll stand here with you. We’ll drown together!” He braced himself when he saw another wave coming towards them.
Dialogue can be used for quick shifts from one character’s thoughts to what another character is thinking. The transition is not noticeable.
Example: Will knew his three aces would win the hand. Now Susie could see the orthodontist. He tossed in two blue chips. “I’ll raise it fifty.” Calvin shrugged. It wasn’t his money. He could always steal more. He pushed in two red chips. “I see the raise and up it a hundred.”
Dialogue can be used for preparing an action or an event that will happen later on: “I tell you that if we don’t get Jenny a new car, she will kill herself. She’s tried it four times before, you know.”
Dialogue can be used for returning characters into the past so the reader can know what happened before the novel began. (Background).
“Let me tell you what happened to me when I was 12 years old. You won’t believe it, but listen anyway.” (The writer describes the past).
There is seemingly idle use for dialogue. Lengthily described scenes can dull the reader’s vision. They become inclined to skim–thereby missing important details. To avoid this, the writer deliberately pulls the character’s voices from the scene, to make them speak. The dialogue breaks up the monotony of reading lengthy passages.
There are many more uses for dialogue than ever reach the reader’s ear.
© 2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop
(first published November 23, 1986 the Manhattan Mercury)