A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
Writing Great Dialogue (Part 8)
When dialogue doesn’t work.
By now you’re probably aware that I love dialogue. I love its texture, its allure and ambiance, it subliminal mood enhancement (e.g.; the squeal of joy, the cry of alarm, the subtle whisper.) Both the impeccably placed, “I love you more than life itself, my darling Rosette,” and “You’re dead to me, Alfredo,” work exceptionally well on my tender psyche. I love the spoken word’s ability to fully explain—or subliminally alter—a character’s mood or emotion, or to more completely develop a character’s true nature. I love its ability to turn the plot on a dime. For instance:
…..“I love you more than life itself, my darling Rosette. You are the most beautiful, intelligent, wonderful woman I’ve ever—” Pierre paused, his attention suddenly shifting beyond Rosette’s beautiful, intelligent, wonderful shoulder. “Say, isn’t that Mssr. LeBeaux’s missing Rembrandt hanging over your fireplace?”
Meaning that, unlike omniscient narration—where the writer often may need pages of careful planning and a deft hand to shift momentum or to redirect a story’s direction—by merely interrupting a character’s dialogue (in mid-word if appropriate) a writer can provide instant redirection. Or misdirection, should necessity require. In a line or two, dialogue can provide a cliff hanger, spill a secret and/or reveal essential plot momentum. Dialogue is an essential tool with 1,001 uses.
I’m easily goose-bumped when confronting great witty or passionate or nuanced dialogue. So, yeah—me and dialogue, we’re tight. Simpatico. We’re cerebral dream lovers. Fantasy friends. If dialogue was mud and I were a pig… Well, you get the idea.
After spilling countless buckets of digital ink extolling the virtues of dialogue, I’m here to reveal dialogue’s seedy underbelly, its subversive or toxic presence in any novel. It’s a tool, after all. And one doesn’t hammer nails with a hacksaw. Because, yes, misguided dialogue can cause writers a world of hurt.
Here, then, are those areas where I believe dialogue (or prolonged use of dialogue) may not be your best bet. Six scenarios where I’d advise against using dialogue are:
1. Using dialogue as an alternative for action.
…..“Look at that volcano, Avignon! Have you ever seen such a magnificent eruption in your entire life? Look at all that smoke. Look at all that belching fire. Look at the village burning! Isn’t it breathtaking!”
As a reader, I don’t want to be informed via dialogue about an important visual. If you’re writing about any sort of dramatic incident or event—a passionate kiss, a sinking ship, an erupting volcano?—realize that readers want to live those moments, as close to the action as possible. We want to experience the earth trembling, the heat of the spouting lava, the yearning or the terror or the joy. I want Avignon, and the reader, to be right up there on the side of the mountain, smelling the sulfur fumes and watching the lava flowing dangerously near. So show me the volcano, don’t simply tell me second hand. Show me the battle. Or the love. Or the brain-sucking zombies. As a reader, I want to feel, smell, taste and observe every crucial detail for myself.
Sure, sometimes dialogue can be necessary to prime a potential plot, and that’s okay. Consider (early in Act I, perhaps) this sort of spoken set-up:
…..“Doug’s grandfather was a Marine on Okinawa during the war,” Ben said. “He saw his share of Japanese soldiers charging at him with fixed bayonets. His best friend, Walter, was killed right in front of his eyes. According to Doug’s gran’pappy, three days before Walter died, he found this map.” Ben stared down at the tattered parchment lying on the table between them.
…..“See that little red X in the middle, that’s Sui Gushiku,” Ben continued. “Shuri Castle, it’s called today. The place was destroyed during the war, and rebuilt as a school. But Doug’s grandfather told him a hundred times that Walter swore he’d discovered some sort of secret tunnel. The access is hidden in a nearby forest, hard to find, and leads to an underground chamber beneath the school. That faded X is where Walter supposedly found the statue. Swears it’s solid gold. Treasure chests, too. Dozens of them. Doug thinks there’s a good chance all that loot’s still there, unknown and untouched for nearly a century. Hey, pass the rum, willya?”
So yeah, dialogue can work as a tease. As a prompt. But as a reader, I better soon be following Doug and Ben on an adventure and experience that secret chamber for myself.
2. Using long-winded or intense dialogue in the middle of action. (Refer again to Action VS. Information). Do not drop an extended dialogue in the middle of an intense action scene. If in doubt, schedule important scenes of lengthy dialogue before or after scenes of intense action.
3. Using dialogue as an RDS (Rapid Delivery System). Dialogue can be quite useful as a convenient and conversational way to hasten along all sorts of character development or plot momentum. If done well, a reader won’t even realize that they’re downloading a significant bit of data. However, one should avoid writing a summation of events using dialogue. The fictive summary—basically an abridgement or synopsis of a plot, of a scene, or of a character’s complicated rationale—becomes a passionless, tension-lacking device to quickly whisk readers from Point A to Point B. If a scene appears in your book, then it damn well deserves to be told with both passion and panache. The summary lacks these two qualities, and (imho) is often the result of lazy writing. If you’re unwilling to paint a complete picture, why should a reader be willing to spend time struggling to enjoy such a limited view? For instance:
.….“How did you manage to survive, Penelope?”
…..“It wasn’t too bad. During the summer months, when the zombie hoards were decimating most of the city, we just kicked back and watched TV. Since zombies don’t have a clue how to use elevators, my cousin Kenny and I lived in the penthouse suite of the Ritz Carlton and every week or so I’d take the express down to the basement and raid the kitchen. I mostly lived on cans of soup and, until the power died, frozen beef patties. Oh, sure, the meandering dead eventually found a way in. One of those damn zombies killed Kenny and another ate my dog’s brain, so that’s when I left. And here I am.”
Wait—they killed Kenny? They ate Spot’s brain? Sounds like a great deal was indeed happening up in the penthouse. And yet a great deal of potential drama is told in summation. Meh! As a reader, I want to know how the zombies discovered the penthouse! If Kenny or Spot were important characters in your book, I’d expect a far more dramatic and heartfelt sendoff than a brief word or two. Show us the terror. Show us Spot’s brain in all it’s delightfully gory detail.
4. Using dialogue to introduce reader-feeder. (Reader-feeder being too much information, too quickly compressed, or else information that the writer attempts to reveal to the reader via characters already well aware of that info…and thus without a logical necessity to reveal to one another.)
For instance, let’s say we’re writing a novel that centers on twin brothers, Ed and Ned, living in a small Midwestern town—and they’re desperately trying to solve their father’s murder. A few pages in, Ed turns to Ned and says, “Our murdered father’s name was Stanley.” Even if readers do not yet know this information, both brothers obviously know it, so the revelation—as written—comes across as reader feeder.
The quick fix is by tweaking the dialogue to more discreetly reveal such info:
…..“You’re Stan’s twin boys, aren’t you?”
…..“That’s right, sheriff,” Ed said. “And we’re here to ask you what you’re doing to find our father’s killer.”
Or through monologue:
…..Our dad, Stanley Jones, didn’t have an enemy in the world. And yet, somebody shot him seven times and left him in a ditch off of the Interstate. No matter how long it takes, me and my brother Ned, we intend to find out who killed him.
Or through omniscient narration:
…..Stanley Jones didn’t have an enemy in the world. Except somebody had shot the old man several times, then left his body in a ditch near Interstate 95. Ed and his brother Ned were bound and determined to discover who killed him. Or die trying.
Since creating/eradicating reader-feeder isn’t dialogue specific, and can subjectively exist on a multitude of level, see Reader-Feeder. (Coming Soon.)
5. Using dialogue as a shortcut for a writer’s fear of depth. As odd as this may sound, some writers (me among them, although I’m getting better) have a subliminal habit of forcing emotions upon characters.
Calvin told Susan that he loved her. She hugged him tightly and, through cascading tears of joy, Susan told Calvin that she loved him too.
So what’s wrong with this? I mean, in some situations this may work. (This tactic also works in short works of fiction.) But do realize that you’re distancing the reader from visualizing those emotions playing out on the page. Real emotion isn’t always easy to express, and some writers may feel that a simple “I love you,” cuts through all that sticky red tape of oogy emotions. But consider a simple line, such as:
Calvin brought Susan a small vase of flowers from the garden that morning, the same way he’d brought her fresh flowers every morning for the last twenty-five years.
If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. But by depicting random acts of love in this manner you’re allowing readers to gradually—and more fully—comprehend the depths of Calvin’s affection. A writer can conceivably pen a brilliant love story without ever uttering the words “I love you.” It’s the old show, don’t tell theory of novel writing.
In certain situations, there’s nothing wrong with: Calvin told Susan that he loved her… Should circumstances dictate, using a more passive narration may create a mood that better fits your intentions. But realize that this sort of faux dialogue typically distances the reader from the immediacy and passion of the moment. And, after 457 pages of gradually building foreplay in a smoldering, epochal love story, this:
He told her that he loved her.
…ain’t nearly as mind-blowingly fulfilling as:
“I love you more than life itself, Rosette.”
6. Using dialogue instead of monologue. Basically, when a character speaks, that’s dialogue. When a character has a private thought, that’s monologue. Obviously, when a character’s alone on a page, that character will seldom speak aloud—I mean, why bother?—and will resort to a thought bubble to pass along information to readers.
I shouldn’t really be doing this, Irene mused, cautiously reaching for the glowing door handle.
Sure, there are times a character may actually speak aloud when alone—but use this trait sparingly. (Characters who routine mumble to themselves may seem a bit…strange, perhaps?) But monologue is no less important than dialogue in a story, and if you’re writing in First Person voice, monologue may actually become your favored approach to communicating with the reader. Some developing writers will attempt to find another character to fit into a scene, simply to force a dialogue whenever communication is necessary. I’m not sure why. A writer should never be off-put by a character’s personal thoughts. Nor is it likely that a character won’t have private thoughts—even in scenes crowded with people. Depicting characters using inner thought (basically, a tool that allows a character to speak directly to readers) is, imho, an integral part of character development. (Also refer to: Dialogue vs. Monologue.).