Six impossible things

Dialog in general

Dialog is the little black dress of fiction. Almost every story includes some, and it’s not uncommon to find dialog occupying a large chunk of important scenes. Sometimes the entire scene, or even the whole story, is done in dialog (and I’m not counting plays or screenwriting). Dialog can reveal individual character, develop relationships among characters, imply or sum up action, reveal backstory, and further the plot, sometimes all in the same sentence.

The fact that dialog can do all these things is what allows novelists and short story writers to get away with the occasional all-dialog scenes, the kind that read like this:

“George? What are you doing in Washington?”

“Nothing terribly inter—get down!”

“Ow! Eeep! What was that?”

“Sniper. No, don’t look; the minute you poke your head around the corner, he’ll get you.”

“Sniper? Oh, George, I thought you gave up working for the C.I.A. three years ago!”

“That’s what I told people.”

This kind of all-dialog, no narrative of any kind scene can work very well once in a while, particularly in the sort of multiple-viewpoint novel where the writer wants to give the reader a glimpse of two characters plotting without actually letting the reader know who the two characters are. It would be quite easy to rewrite the above scenelet to remove George’s name, leaving the reader to wonder which two characters have just been shot at and which one used to work for the C.I.A….and maybe still does.

The trouble is that for all the things that dialog can do, it’s often easier and more effective to do some of them in the surrounding narrative. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; we’ve all seen/heard bad movies where the scriptwriter has tried to do everything in dialog and failed miserably (“Quick! Take this frampus, which I have just produced from my extraordinarily capacious pockets, and undo that widget, while I provide covering fire with my trusty Mark VII ray gun to hold off the villains who are shooting at us with their new high-tech dilithium phasers!”). This kind of thing doesn’t work any better in a novel than it does in a B movie.

And then there are the writers who try to get in everything that a movie viewer would see. For instance:

“George?” Jennifer stopped in mid-stride, seemingly oblivious to the other pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk, her eyes wide with a combination of astonishment and pleasure and her voice high with surprise. “What are you doing in Washington?” she demanded, emphasizing the first and last words of the question. She raised her left eyebrow, tilted her head to the right side, and pursed her lips as her eyes narrowed slightly. Her fingers fiddled with the strap of her handbag, and her right toe tapped impatiently. She swayed slightly to one side to let someone pass, while apparently keeping her whole attention on George.

That paragraph is trying to create a movie visual in words, providing the reader with every tiny move, change of expression, and tone that an actress might use to convey the character’s reactions and personality so that the viewer/reader can interpret them. And it doesn’t work – the narration overwhelms the reader with too many details, and give no indication of which ones are key to understanding what the character really means (besides the obvious meaning of the dialog itself).

Novelists and short story writers have a different set of tools and tricks available for getting things across to the reader. There are quite a lot of them; I kept coming up with more and more of them as I was working on this post. So I’m going to spend the next few posts on specifics of writing dialog, including everything from content and syntax to speech tags and stage business. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

4 Comments
  1. Oh yes, please! Some critiquers have told me they’re not sure who’s speaking in some of my scenes–and I wasn’t trying to puzzle people. Dialog tags get boring, stage business can feel clumsy. Help will be much appreciated.

  2. Looking forward to further installments. I’m especially interested to see something about conveying expressions — without sounding like the example above! My characters tend to communicate a lot via non-verbal means, and there’s only so many eyebrows you can raise.

  3. Oh, this reminds me of a recent news story in the WSJ “English teachers were once satisfied if they could prevent their pupils from splitting infinitives. Now some also want to stop them from using words like “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said.”

    “We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.

    “There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

    Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.””

    I wondered if someone behind it had imprinted on that Turkey City Lexicon, and forsee lots of bad writing in the future. I understand the impulse to push kids to use strong words, but I think they’re doing it wrong. Too many ‘non-said’ words on a page and I start noticing and mentally betting what will be next. ‘Said’ vanishes on the page, unless the writing is clumsy in other ways, like the second example of overdone description is. Just a George thought her eyes widened, or something would have been enough.

  4. A friend and I were just talking about the difficulty of suggesting on paper what visual media does effortlessly. It’s frustrating when you want to get down every nuance, but can’t! And shouldn’t.

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