Writing Great Dialog (Part 1)
An absolute necessity.
Let’s assume that we, as aspiring novelists, have sufficient technical, stylistic and plot-building skills. Meaning we can turn a phrase, can fully frame a story, we trust our characters’ various motivations, can discern a verb from a noun, and rarely allow ourselves to dangle a participle. All those crucial factors being securely in place, what then becomes the single, most essential element necessary for writing—not to mention publishing—a truly great novel?
Sorry, but that was rhetorical.
Because the answer is dialog. For my money, few aspects of novel writing can captivate, motivate or emotionally move a reader as will dialog. Great dialog is, IMHO, more important than solid plot structure. More important than a mellifluous voice. Time and time again, as an editor, when I confront slow or unwieldy dialog I feel my interest in a manuscript begin to deflate like a puffer fish on a salad fork.
But enough preamble. Let’s talk about dialog. While omniscient narration* can lay out much or most of a novel, a writer really can’t really tell a whole story without dialog. Can’t fully involve the reader. Can’t fully reveal a character. As importantly, great dialog can be a panacea of sorts—a way for the author to instantly develop a rapport between characters (or between a character and the reader), to fill a vacuum or quickly shift gears, to intentionally misdirect or to clarify and, basically, to solve a myriad of plot-thwarting issues—and in ways that a novel without dialog (or with insufficient or anemic dialog) could ever hope to resolve. Think of dialog as being that essential roll of duct tape in our bag of literary tricks.
But more about using dialog as a problem-solver in a subsequent post. Frankly, it’s the sheer joy of creating dialog that inspires many of us to fill our stories with the witty, astute, finely-honed verbiage uttered by our characters. Problem-solving is merely an added bonus. So let’s start with the basics.
Here then, the basics.
First and foremost, one creates good dialog by replicating those three basic premises necessary to create a great story line. (See Simple But Exciting—Part II.) Dialog should accomplish one of three specific goals by: 1) Setting a scene; 2) Developing or defining a character, or; 3) Forwarding the plot.**
If having only three options seems restrictive, fear not. Your expressive, expansive wildcard exists in #2: character development. A great deal of seemingly superficial or extraneous dialog can go a long way to help define a character’s personality, motivations, fears and passions, to ultimately create a very real human being. Two characters, hitchhiking through the middle of nowhere, can fill an otherwise mundane scene with the most tantalizing of conversations—about their fears, their desires, their darkest secrets. Maybe such character chatter reveals little about the plot ahead, but those pages can provide a great deal of insight about the people inside your head, not only relating to each other, but to readers as well.
A quick example of those three options mentioned above:
1. Scene setting. (Two astronauts float within their space capsule, looking out a porthole at the quickly approaching face of Venus, still a thousand miles away.)
….“Don’t let its alien beauty distract you, Cameron. That evil planet’s scorching hot. You step out of a dome in full sunlight, even in a fully shielded suit, your face plate will melt in a half second flat. Your skull will pop a half second after that. After sundown’s no better. Most of the rocks out there are sharp enough to slice you to the bone. One false step can drop you down a thousand-foot crevice or suck you into a sand pit before you get a chance to tug on your G-line. I’ve seen storms worse than any hurricane on Earth, winds whippin’ down offa those western slopes without a moment’s notice. You don’t keep your eyes peeled 24/7 and you’ll be dead before you know you’re even in trouble.”
2. Character building. (Two young teenagers walk along a sunny beach. They’ve met only moments before, and they’re talking about their parents.)
….“You think your mom’s bad? Mine won’t even let me eat chocolate.”
….“That kinda sucks.”
….“Totally. She says I’m allergic. I mean like deathly allergic. The thing is, I’ve never even tried chocolate. So how the hell does she know, right?”
….“I have some chocolate at home, if you want.”
….“Truth. You wanna share a Snickers bar?”
….“Yeah. I mean sooner or later, I gotta know for sure. Let’s do it.”
….“Well, wait—maybe not. I mean, what if it’s true? I mean, you don’t know for sure it’s not. So, no, let’s maybe get a Coke or something instead.”
3. Forwarding the plot. (A young couple gaze up an aging spiral staircase in a dilapidated old house. A wind howls outside. The lights flicker.)
….“Darling, I’m scared.”
….“I’m telling you, this has to be the way in.” Ralph held up the antique brass key between his fingers. “This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life. A way to unlock the attic door. To see once and for all what’s up there.”
….“But…but what about your grandmother’s warning?”
….“About ghosts? Don’t be silly, Edith. It’s an old attic for criminy sake. Maybe some rats bumping around up there, that’s all. But my grandfather, he was worth millions, and he didn’t take it with him. What we find up there, I think it’s going to make us rich.”
….“I don’t know, Ralph. It feels wrong.”
….“Don’t be scared. Granny will be ninety-seven years old come August. She can’t even remember my name half the time. She’s nothing but a crazy old lady with a strange imagination.” Ralph turned and started up the old stairway. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”
Before I continue—one important note. When I speak of dialog, I’m referring to both external and internal communication—because both spoken words and internal contemplation share equal importance in a novel.
External (verbal) dialog:
….“My dear Mrs. Smith, you’re looking quite fetching today.”
….“Do not attempt to humor me, Mr. Jones,” Veronica said crossly. “You’re presumptuous to believe that I’ll ever allow you to marry my daughter or inherit my wealth. I’m well aware of of your scheming ways, sir. Good day.” She turned and continued her stroll down Elm Street.
…or internal (subconscious) monologue.
….“My dear Mrs. Smith, you’re looking quite fetching today.”
….Veronica offered the man a tepid smile, well aware of Mr. Jones’ intentions. He’ll never sway me with his fancy talk, she mused, her gaze unwavering. Her emerald eyes blazed, the voice inside her head oozing with contempt. You don’t want to toy with me, young man. I’m well aware of your scheming ways. I shall never allow you near my daughter or her wealth. Without a word, Veronica turned and continued her stroll down Elm Street.
But more about the complexities of internal/external differences later as well.
However, before moving along to Dialog (Part 2) one reminder (because now it’s Rule #30): Create dialog that (like plotting) accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character, or; 3) Moves the plot forward.
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* Omniscient Narration (a reminder). Typically when writing in third-person (past or present) omniscient narration provides a pansophic (all-knowing!) perspective that offers information to the reader unbeknownst to your characters. For instance, the following sentence is omniscient narration: Deep in a forgotten cave burrowed beneath Old Hickory Mountain, a storage chest had been buried centuries ago, hiding the bandit Juan LaFortuna’s missing treasure—an immense fortune that would prove fatal for most of those on Sal’s expedition.
** The 3 Goals when writing dialog. There exists another imperative (yet elusive) attribute necessary when writing great dialog. But this essential tidbit is a bit more difficult to explain. For simplicity’s sake, I won’t delve any deeper until my next post. (See Dialog Part 2.)