By Robert Gray
As writers of the macabre, we know how important it is to wrap the fantastic elements of our stories with as many truths as possible. Perhaps this is what makes dialogue such an interesting beast. It serves to add a layer of realism to our stories, yet to be convincing, dialogue must ring true and feel natural without being as meaningless and chaotic as everyday speech can be. In essence, we are attempting to take the spoken word and convert it into coherent symbols in order to create a sort of virtualization of the truth. And, yes, there is a whole lot of room for error.
There are dozens of styles and effects you can use to improve your dialogue, but often enough authors get so concerned with the stylistic aspects that they forget what dialogue is supposed to do, which is:
- Reveal character
- Build tension
- Advance plot
Just like in real life, much of what you learn from a character is revealed through dialogue. In fiction, good dialogue becomes the character. It shows the character’s motivations, intelligence, social status, and personality in such a way that readers can draw their own conclusions about the character without having to be told. It’s not enough to say someone is good or bad. As authors, we must show it, and good dialogue does just that.
Take this passage from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens for example:
“Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
Dickens doesn’t say that Scrooge is mean-spirited and hates Christmas, but rather he implies it through a conversation between Scrooge and his nephew. The effect works so much better than just saying that Scrooge hated Christmas and thought that anyone who celebrated the holiday should die.
Dialogue should also evoke foreshadowing, which is essential, especially in horror, in building tension. Good dialogue should keep the reader wondering what’s going to happen next by providing those subtle hints of things to come. The benefit of using dialogue to build tension is that your characters can respond to a situation emotionally, letting the reader know what is at stake for the characters, thereby keeping the reader emotionally involved, too.
Look at the opening lines to E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web:
“Where is Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
From the very beginning, E.B. White creates tension with just two simple lines of dialogue.
Often enough, dialogue becomes flat and wooden when it comes to advancing the plot. Amateur writers will often turn to expository passages, which seldom engages the reader. If you try to force your plot in a certain direction, your dialogue and your story will suffer as a result. Remember: You want to set your readers up for an emotional climax, not force information down their throats. In many cases, revealing character and building tension will naturally advance the plot, making an almost mathematical equation: Revealing Character + Building Tension = Advancing the Plot.
I’d like to suggest to you that if you want to study dialogue, you should of course read great dialogue writers – Elmore Leonard comes immediately to mind – but you should also read screenplays. I find screenplays can offer better examples of good dialogue because the story only exists through dialogue, whereas a good novelist can compensate for bad dialogue with other techniques. Screenplays are also useful when learning how to hide expository information within dialogue because screenwriters don’t have the luxury of narration. Be careful of one major difference between screenplays and novels, though. Screenplays often needlessly repeat character names, because there is no other way to know who is being spoken to: Thanks, Robert, for the advice. In novels, this isn’t the case and should be used sparingly.
If you are not establishing at least one of the three requirements within your dialogue, then you would do best to revise, no matter how beautifully you’ve crafted that nonessential conversation with Mom about the increase in sales tax. However, if you do find that your conversation has a purpose but may be boring to the reader, try using indirect quotation to paraphrase the speaker. Maybe that sales tax conversation does serve some small purpose to the overall story. You can simply use indirect quotation and move on:
His mom gabbed for over an hour about the sales tax increase.
Good dialogue has to be realistic, but it cannot be exact speech. It has to reveal information about character and move the plot, but it can’t be too expository. Walking those fine lines can be tricky, but with lots of practice and a solid understanding of what dialogue must do – reveal character, build tension and advance plot – you will be writing effective and professional dialogue in no time.