A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
Writing Great Dialogue:
More Q. & A. (Cont’d)
Continued from the previous post.
• • •
Q. Can I write a novel using dialogue but without monologue?
A. You can…but I wouldn’t advise it. You’re using dialogue (the spoken word) to share vital information with other characters but also with the reader. You’re using monologue to reveal a character’s inner (secret?) thoughts solely to the reader. By truncating or eliminating monologue, you’re insinuating that none of your characters have a cogent notion that readers will find useful—unless that character’s near enough another character to initiate a verbal exchange. You’re basically telling us that none of your characters have a private opinion or an internal concern. That doesn’t seem likely.
I also question why a writer might be reluctant to delve into a character’s subconscious mind. I can understand that if one’s writing about a zombie holocaust or an invasion from Mars, internal speculation may not be high on your list of priorities—but still, I’d be surprised if even the staunchest Martian-blasting astronaut doesn’t have a thought or two worth sharing. For instance: Well, that’s a crazy notion, Muldoon thought of Tully’s idea to storm the Martian base using the last remaining ATV. Meaning that your characters are very likely occasionally sharing some personal asides with the reader, just not with sufficient depth to be considered truly “thought-provoking.”
I’ve even known a writer or two whose characters verbally mumble their thoughts aloud. “Well, that’s a crazy notion,” Muldoon mumbled to himself. I mean, sure, that option may work on occasion—but to have an entire novel filled with people mumbling to themselves might seem a bit…strange. The simplest solution, of course, is: Well, that’s a crazy idea, Muldoon
mumbled to himself thought. Bingo! You’ve broken the interior monologue barrier!
• • •
Q. Can I start dialogue in the middle of a conversation without confusing my readers? In other words, can I leave out the boring parts of a conversation?
A. Leaving out “the boring parts” is an important lesson for any novelist to learn. One of the more functional (e.g.; amazing) attributes of dialogue is the writer’s ability to so utterly control what is said and how it’s said. Where omniscient narration carries a weighty set of rules that must ground the reader to conventional standards, dialogue offers far more flexibility and room to maneuver. When writing dialogue, a writer can quickly segue in and/or out of various situations or expectations, can easily infuse character development, or can alter moods—providing comical relief in stressful situations or gravitas in lighter moments. In the middle of a conversation, the fictional speaker can abruptly change subjects, can call forth past memories, or speculate upon the future. A character can whisper secrets or outright lie (to both the reader and to other characters.) One can be quite insane, and babble accordingly. A character can solve a crime via dialogue (a la Charlie Chan) or sway opinion (a la Mr. Smith in Washington.)
Dialogue is the window into your characters’ souls (so use it accordingly). With a few spoken words, a writer can jump-start a plot or add unexpected twists and turns. Dialogue can juggle emotions, upend assumptions, can fill plot holes and reveal important secrets. Dialogue is probably the single most useful, versatile, functional tool in a novelist’s tool kit. So think of dialogue as the ‘duct tape’ equivalent—meaning it has 1001 uses and can solve a lot of problems.
“Luke, I am your father.”
Need I say more?
(Okay, so in Star Wars: Episode V, Darth actually says, “No, I am your father.” But—just like Casablanca’s non-existent line: “Play it again, Sam“—Mr. Vader’s assumptive words have become ingrained in our collective psyche. And, back to the point, a few simple words can be as potent as any epic visual or action sequence. A few words can change everything.)
As for beginning direct dialogue (the ‘he said/she said’ part) in the middle of a conversation that’s already taking place—that’s perfectly okay, so long as the reader is suitably grounded. For instance, let’s say we’ve depicted two old friends who meet, quite by happenstance, on a cross-country train.* They haven’t seen each other for many years. Grounding, in this case, means using omniscient narration to sufficiently depict their initial chitchat—maybe they embrace and casually small talk for a few minutes, before allowing direct dialogue to continue with “the heavy work”…
…..They talked about their spouses and their children and, over a nice bottle of pinot noir in the dining car, Donna told Tom about her recent divorce. Tom told Donna about his moving away from Springfield, several years before, after his wife’s sudden death. Donna had always been a West Coast girl and offered him a frown. She remembered how much he loved sailing, and how often they’d spend evenings staring off into the ocean.
…..“Do you ever miss it, Tom?” she asked. “Living on the Pacific Coast?”
…..“All the time,” he replied wistfully.
…..“And you’ve never found a reason to return?”
…..“Maybe we can change that,” she said with an inviting smile.
So, yes, one can narrate characters into a conversation and then switch to direct dialogue whenever the words themselves become important enough to evoke the emotion, mood, or the precision, that you desire. Could you write the above conversation without direct dialogue? Of course.
….She remembered how much he loved staring off into the ocean and asked him if he missed the Pacific Coast. He told he did, quite often in fact, gazing at her with a wistful expression. But Tom explained that he’d never found a reason to return to California. She wondered aloud if, perhaps, he’d never found sufficient reason. Sipping her wine, she wondered if she might be able to change his mind.
So, sure, it’s possible—but authorial narration doesn’t always carry the same passionate resonance that direct dialogue can impart upon the reader. Essentially, the reader is distanced by the author, functioning (often unnecessarily) as a third-party go-between. So my advice is allow the characters to speak for themselves as much as possible.
For the record, I’m more comfortable with this sort of authorial narration in a short story, where a limited word count might necessitate truncating various elements. But when writing a novel, I’d much rather drown myself in direct verbiage than a summary of characters’ emotions.
• • •
Q. What’s meant by “timing” in dialogue?
A. Timing—in a book, in a movie, in a musical piece—is simply the precision of one’s choreography, the accuracy of one’s stage direction, the smooth transition from one thing to another. For instance, consider: John hit Rocky in the nose. He cocked his fist and swung. VS. John cocked his fist and swung. He hit Rocky in the nose. The precise order of one’s sentence structure is the choreography of a character’s words or actions. A writer is directing two (or more) actors to perform (or converse) in a timely, logical sequence. One doesn’t want to “put the cart before the horse” (as my granny used to say). But one doesn’t want to put the horse too far in front of the cart either.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re writing a romantic comedy. The plot is this: Rick loves Lucy. Your 378 page novel is all about Rick falling in love and, at the end, about Rick and Lucy living happily ever after. However, here’s the trick: only once in your book are you permitted to utter this phrase: “I love you, Lucy!” But only once.
Ahhh…. a conundrum!
Sure, you can visualize two people falling in love in as many ways as possible—sunset beach walks, champagne-drenched evenings by a roaring fire—and Rick can spout Shakespearean love sonnets as much as he wants. But that essential utterance of, “I love you, Lucy!” is sacrosanct, pay dirt, nirvana—and, again—the line can be used only once.
So… where might those words be best utilized? Right up front, on page one? Kind of a spoiler, isn’t it? How about on the last page? That might work, but by now, Rick’s love might be so obvious to the reader that the words have lost their effectiveness. But what about that big, serious argument midway through the novel? Maybe Lucy’s upset, frustrated, walking out the door for the last time. What about then? Might those words—unexpectedly uttered in such a predicament—work their magic? Perhaps so. Or maybe not.
There’s no right or wrong answer, by the way. A proficient writer could make the phrase work in numerous situations. The key being that, where a knowledgeable writer ultimately places that line becomes precisely where it belongs. So treat those words—not to mention every other line of dialogue you write—with the same appreciation for their dramatic impact and/or significant revelation.
• • •
Q. How do I visibly differentiate dialogue from monologue on the page. Should I use ‘single quote marks’ for monologue?
A. Typically not. At least I’ve only rarely come across that format. One option is to use italics to differentiate monologue from dialogue—in cases where a character’s thoughts are short (a line or two) or when your juxtaposing two or more characters simultaneously speaking and thinking:
…..“You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady.”
…..“Why not, mom,” Carol whined. It’s not like you give a damn anyway. “Everybody’s wearing Speedos to school.”
…..“Well, you’re not everyone, Bernice.”
…..No, I’m not. Just a girl who has a Nazi commandant as a mother.
The option is to tag your characters with attribution:
…..“You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady,” Mrs. Smith said.
…..“Why not, mom,” Carol whined. It’s not like you give a damn anyway, she thought. “Everybody’s wearing Speedos to school.”
…..“Well, you’re not everyone, Bernice.”
…..No, I’m not, she thought angrily. She didn’t know any other girl in school who had a Nazi commandant for a mother.
• • •
Q. Must my characters’ dialogue be totally plot-relevant?
A. I believe dialogue should either be relevant to my plot or—as equally important—relevant to my characters. (Refer to the basics in Dialogue Part 1 should you desire.) In the early stages of a story, plot-centric dialogue may likely be considered overkill. For instance, if my protagonist will be eventually diagnosed with cancer, sitting around talking about a distant possibility of having cancer feels far too coincidental. (It’s also considered telegraphing.) Obviously, if my intent is to depict a character sitting in a doctor’s office on page one, about to learn of the test results on page two, that’s a different situation. Still…! If that’s the case, a word of concern: Knowing about a plot-motivator (in this case, cancer) before we know a bit about any specific character, may feel a little invasive or obtrusive for readers. My rule of thumb? Properly introduce characters—if only superficially—before you put them in harm’s way. Or love’s way. Or whichever way your plot is pointing.
It’s also important for readers to settle into a physical realm, so properly set the stage—both visually and emotionally. Perhaps, before cancer strikes, this rural Virginian family has been planning a long-awaited trip to Australia. Dad, mom, the three kids and the dog are excited, and so we readers have glimpsed a cheerful family, preparing for the vacation of a lifetime. And now—oops, almost forgot about that last-minute doctor’s appointment! So I’ve allowed readers to get to know my characters—hopefully to relate and care about them—before I drop them into an intense situation. If readers don’t know the central characters, the sudden cancer diagnosis isn’t nearly as traumatic than if we do know, and like, these people.
When characters are written as likeable, we’re more empathetic to their fear and concern. Conversely, when a character’s written as unlikable (for instance, an antagonist) the reader’s more likely to fear and loath their presence. Both our heroes and villains should be well-rounded and created with proper motivation and personality before the story’s too far along. Dialogue’s one of the best ways to reveal those traits.
– – – – –
* Speaking of trains, If you’re having doubts about the power of dialogue, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1950). The entire plot revolves around a single, random conversation. Also check out the—aptly named—The Conversation (1974). Francis Ford Coppola directs Gene Hackman in an intense, dialogue-rich murder mystery.