A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
Writing Great Dialogue (Part 1):
An Absolute Necessity.
Let’s assume that, as aspiring novelists, we 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 dialogue. For my money, few aspects of novel writing can captivate, motivate or emotionally move a reader as will dialogue. Great dialogue 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 dialogue 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 dialogue. While omniscient narration* can lay out much or most of a novel, a writer really can’t tell a whole story without dialogue. Can’t fully involve the reader. Can’t fully reveal a character. As importantly, great dialogue 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 dialogue (or with insufficient or anemic dialogue) could ever hope to resolve. Think of dialogue as being that essential roll of duct tape in our bag of literary tricks.
But more about using dialogue as a problem-solver in a subsequent post. Frankly, it’s the sheer joy of creating dialogue 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 dialogue by replicating those three basic premises necessary to create a great story line. (See Simple But Exciting—Part II.) Dialogue should accomplish one of three specific goals by: 1) Setting a scene, emotionally or descriptively; 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 Premise #2: character development. A great deal of seemingly superficial or extraneous dialogue can go a long way to help define a character’s personality, motivations, fears and passions, and to ultimately create a very real human being. Dialogue can also tease the reader or pique curiosity. (“Hey, do you really think that old house is haunted?”)
You can also utilize dialogue to kill time, or to provide a suitable segue between other, more visually active scenes. For instance, 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 paranoid? 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. Hey, you wanna share a Snickers bar?”
….“Yeah. Sooner or later, I gotta know for sure. Let’s do it.”
….“Well, wait—I mean, maybe not. I mean, what if it’s true? You don’t know for sure it’s not. What if you get all convulsive and croak? I sure as hell doesn’t want your mom mad at me.”
….“My mom doesn’t even know you.”
….“Even worse. 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 afraid. 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 dialogue, I’m referring to both external (the spoken word) and internal (private thought) communication—because both spoken words and internal contemplation share equal importance in a novel. For example:
External (verbal) dialogue:
….“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.
However, before moving along to Dialogue (Part 2) again the reminder (because now it’s Rule #30): Create dialogue that (like plotting) accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character, or; 3) Moves the plot forward.
– – – – – – – – – –
* Omniscient Narration (another reminder). Typically when writing in third-person, omniscient narration can provide 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 author knows where the gold’s hidden and the fate of the expedition and so do the readers. But not the characters.
** The 3 Goals when writing dialogue. There exists another imperative (yet elusive) attribute necessary when writing great dialogue. 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 Dialogue Part 2.)
BTW, what do I mean by emotionally or descriptively setting a scene in dialogue? A quick example:
Emotionally: “Get out, Rebecca! You slept with my brother and I hate you for that! Don’t ever come back!”
Descriptively: “Don’t go in there, Rebecca. The cave is dark as death, and cold as ice. They say you can feel the devil inside that cave, whispering in your ear, taunting you that you’re about to lose you soul.”