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“Say What?”–What Direction Is Your Dialogue Going?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

If you don’t take away anything else from this series, one of the most important things we have to learn about dialogue is that in a novel, dialogue must impact the story and the story must impact the dialogue. The plot(s) and conflicts of the story are what should drive the dialogue so that what your characters say pushes the story forward.

Yesterday, I gave a visual example of how our brains naturally think that when we see a page with dialogue on it, the story will be moving. Therefore, when we write dialogue, we need to keep that in mind. There’s a very popular self-help book out on the market called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Well, I’m going to co-opt that title and say Don’t Write the Small Stuff. Yes, we’re going to have hellos and goodbyes in our dialogue—that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about are the long conversations with a friend about nothing of great importance—about that movie on TCM we both watched or our excitement over the upcoming new movie Australia and how glad we are that Russell Crowe turned down the main male lead and Hugh Jackman was cast instead, and wondering how large a role David Wenham will have.

Those conversations, while important to my day-to-day relationships with friends and family, aren’t necessarily important to the “plot” of my life. But when I talked to my dad about whether or not I’m going to try to find a full-time job or continue freelancing after the end of the year, that’s a directional conversation—it’s showing in which direction the plot of my life story is going.

Tom Chiarella puts it this way in Writing Dialogue: “What your character says is directed by the needs of the story.”

Put dialogue in the driver’s seat in scenes where you need to drive conflict. Make your character want something that he needs to get from another character. Will he just walk up and ask for it? Or will he commence in small-talk first and then get around to asking for it? And how will the other character react to this request?

“All good dialogue has direction. It’s a mishmash of needs and desire on the part of an individual character weighed against the tension inherent in the gathering of more than one person. . . . This is the stuff that fills the spaces between us, even when we don’t recognize it. As a writer, you have to learn to trust that it’s there” (Chiarella, 21)

Going back to the example I used last week of how we greet people, have you ever thought about the emotion behind the way you choose to greet someone? When I see someone I know and they ask me how I’m doing, I always say hello back, and maybe add a “you look great” (if I mean it) and hope they forget that they asked me how I’m doing—because I really don’t want to answer. See how that might work for a character who’s hiding something or who doesn’t really like to talk about herself? That’s dialogue that gives direction to the development of a character. Or turn that around to a character who not only asks, “How are you?” but persists (“No, I mean, how are you really?”) until it makes everyone around her uncomfortable. (Yes, I actually used to know someone like that.)

How many books have you read that start with dialogue as the first line/hook? That’s definitely directional dialogue, because not only does it kick off the entire story, but it kicks off the tone of the story. It should also immediately introduce the tension/conflict that will be present for the rest of the novel. Starting a novel with dialogue gives you a chance to immediately introduce the main character through interaction with others, giving the reader a chance to come to know the character by experiencing his words and his thoughts as he volleys back and forth with someone else. Of course, snappy dialogue isn’t enough for an opening scene. It really must be providing your reader with the “implicit promise” that Nancy Kress talks about in Beginnings, Middles & Ends.

One major problem with directional dialogue is that the reader can sometimes begin to see it not as natural conversation between people, but as a tool the writer is using to direct what’s going on in the story. You can’t just have one character interview another so that you can explain backstory (oops, I have Meredith being interviewed by a TV reporter in MFR!). This goes back to what we learned last week by comparing real-life conversations with scripted dialogue. While we need to clean up and rearrange the real-life conversations in order to make them work better on the page, the rhythm of real conversations—pauses, interruptions, silences, reversals (turning what someone said back on them), changes in sentence length, changes in speed/tone, use of idiom/jargon, and use of details already known between the characters speaking (such as the “I see it; I see it” example I gave at the end of the How Do You Say Hello? post).

In the series I did on Showing vs. Telling, I talked about telling backstory through dialogue:

Telling what happened before the story began is, most often, important to the events going on in our stories, whether it’s what someone does for a living, or events from a character’s childhood (“backstory”). I find that dialogue between characters tends to be a good way to get this information across. Most of the time, there will be other characters who do not know all of our protagonists’ pertinent information. Dialogue is immediate, and the beats in between should be active. But it can still be a stumbling block. Here’s an example of what Stein calls “the silliest way that ‘telling’ crops up”:

“Henry, your son the doctor is at the door.”

Dialogue should never be used to convey information to the reader that the character being spoken to already knows. However, a statement like this could work as a way to get the information across if it’s said as a joke, an insult, or something that will elicit a reaction out of another character. For example:

The door opened. Mom looked up and smiled. “Henry, your son—the doctor—is here.”

Craig’s guts twisted and the cereal he’d just swallowed threatened to make a repeat appearance. Would she always compare him to his brother? It wasn’t Craig’s fault editors kept rejecting his novel.

What does this example say about these characters? About what Craig and his brother do for jobs? About how Mom feels about their chosen professions? About Craig’s relationship with his mother?

In the first dialogue example, the mother’s statement is merely the author trying to get information across to the reader. In the second example, it becomes directional dialogue, because it illicits a reaction; and in addition to giving information, it’s a jab at the non-doctor son—characterizing the mother in the scene as well.

So when you go back for revisions—or as you start writing a scene with dialogue—ask yourself if it has direction. If not, try to find it or add it. Otherwise, cut, cut, cut!

  1. Wednesday, October 8, 2008 11:09 am

    When I read dialogue that’s basically an information dump, or background dump, I tend to roll my eyes. It takes me out the story completely. What a cheap way to write, I think.

    I think that balancing narrative and dialogue is key, and also knowing what ISN’T necessary to include at all.

    I read somewhere that if you can narrow in on just the dialogue of the story and come away with seeing the plot move forward, then you’ve read good dialogue. I sometimes speed read this way. Just read what’s between the quotes. I can tell a good dialogue writer from a poor one by doing this. Wish I could see it in my own work, though!


  2. Wednesday, October 8, 2008 1:47 pm

    I loved the statement “Don’t write the small stuff!” A good reminder for me as I do my rewrites.


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