Writers’ Craft 7: Dialogue

A tricky art

One of the common problems I see as an editor is clumsy dialogue. So often a writer feels the need to explain the dialogue with all manner of cues and instructions, as though they were writing a screen play, or giving notes to an actor. Writing dialogue for general reading is quite different. It requires that you, as the writer, remove yourself and instead choose your words, and how you employ those words, with precision, allowing your reader to interact and fill in the surround. Go too far, and you have those actor’s notes. Don’t go far enough, and you leave your reader in a void.

How far is too far?

Good question. In my experience, and to my aesthetic — and remember, art is subjective — using dialogue identifiers and notes is going too far. For example:

“I’m going to the store,” he said grumpily.

“Again?” she whined. “You just went out this morning.”

“Well, someone forgot to add milk to the list,” he growled.

She softened her voice and said, “Couldn’t you use cream?”

He shot back, “Like hell.”

Yeah, pretty pedantic and plodding, wouldn’t you say? But you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen dialogue like this.

There’s an opportunity missed here to not only create excellent tension, but character development through tighter dialogue. Perhaps like this:

He knew he allowed his anger to show, perhaps unfairly, but before he could stop himself he said, “I’m going to the store.” And immediately he saw his anger hit her like a blow, and watched her brace for defense.

“Again? You just went out this morning.”

“Well, someone forgot to add milk to the list.”

That one landed full force, and he had to strain to hear her when she said, “Couldn’t you use cream?”

“Like hell.”

Now there’s heightened tension. We now know something more about the main character, have established point of view, and allowed the dialogue to flow along naturally, much as it would in an actual conversation.

Generally, once you’ve established the speakers with the first two exchanges, there’s often little need to identify the speakers thereafter. And by eliminating all the stage directions, you’ve allowed your reader to better interact because of the rapid fire flow of the dialogue.

In the first segment of dialogue, we are allowed inside the head of the main character. We know he’s angry, knows he’s being a jerk, and apparently is either so exasperated, or too much of a jerk, to control his anger. We then see the other character’s reaction through his eyes, thereby further establishing point of view.

In the next segment — her reply — there is no need to identify the speaker, because that’s already been established in the previous segment. By doing that, by just allowing her words to sit on the page, we allow tension to build because there’s nothing else distracting us from what she says. The same result occurs in the third segment of dialogue. After that we establish a pause, a further opportunity to develop the scene and character by not only allowing us to see the situation through the main character’s eyes, but to hear her subdued response through his senses. Then the full blow of the conversation is delivered in a short, sharp response of just two words, no descriptors. Bam.

Information dump and long narratives through dialogue

Sometimes we use dialogue to convey background information in our stories. That’s perfectly fine. But you should be mindful of keeping tension tight and not arresting the action by waxing poetic about some thing, or adventure, or parable. It’s important to remember that throughout your story you’re constantly working to keep you reader’s attention. There are a lot of things to distract that reader: social media, household, coffee, that walk. So, in order to keep that tension, break up your information throughout the dialogue, have your characters interact just as they would in real life. Let’s face it, that’s what we’re trying to do in our stories, or should be: creating a verisimilitude of life.

I remember clearly reading a naval historical novel by a well-known author of the genre. There was a section in the story where the crew and ship were soon going to face battle with an enemy they’d been chasing, a plot point which had been developed throughout. But just as they’d sighted the enemy’s sails on the horizon, the author decides to wax poetic through dialogue about a particular knot a seaman had developed and employed, and went on about it for about three pages, as I recall. By then the entire sense of the chase and breathlessness and danger had spilled overboard, and certainly left me fuming. While it’s wonderful to include detail, in this case the conversation that had been so rife with tension regarding their strategy and battle plans was entirely eclipsed and assassinated by a knot.

Don’t do that.

Break up your information throughout your dialogue, as I’ve said.

Allow me to use an example from my novel, From Mountains of Ice.

“The harvest looks bountiful,” Vincenze said around a mouthful of bread.

Aletta cast a glance over the fields, perched as they were on a small rise. “Bountiful, yes. The land has had an opportunity to rest, and all that firing did the earth good, despite our feelings on the matter.”

“It would seem the same could be said for the spiders?” Sylvio said.

Vincenze nodded, swallowing. “The tree spiders are back, yes, spinning webs the likes of which I’ve not seen in many years.”

“Big?”

“Big? There were some webs so large they spanned trees, some as big as two hundred metres.”

“You exaggerate,” Sylvio mumbled.

“He tells the truth, amore mia,” Aletta said, setting down the wine jug and watching Vincenze carefully. “Two hundred metres.”

Sylvio kept his astonishment under control, wondering what it could mean that the spiders spun such large webs. “Well, at least we’ll be able to make angeli strings.”

Vincenze nodded. “I’ve a plentiful harvest. We’ll be able to fit a large percentage of the bows for trade with angeli.” He sipped from the wooden beaker of wine. “How look our goods for trade?”

“Good.”

“Good goods,” Aletta said. “Information, my love. It helps in conversation when you provide information.”

Sylvio grunted. “I was getting to it.”

Aletta let out a cluck of exasperation.

“We’re going to have grain to trade,” Sylvio said, throwing Aletta a frown. “That will be a first in two years. Should fetch a good price at market in Reena –-”

“And horses,” Aletta said. “The foals from last year are proving healthy yearlings.”

“And horses,” Sylvio agreed. “And it would appear we’re also going to have a good selection of bows, many with angeli strings – some with angeli strings.”

“Any decision on selling the arcossi?” Vincenze asked.

The arcossi. Debate among the bowyers and the villagers about selling the arcossi had been passionate and divided. There were some archers who swore there were voices in their heads when they used the bows Sylvio made, telling them how to draw, where to aim, when to loose. And when pressed Sylvio admitted there was something uncanny about them, of having images like memories swim through his head as he carefully sliced thin veneers from the bones, glued bone to wood, tillered and teased a laminated stick into a weapon of deadly, almost sentient, grace. It hadn’t been until he’d worked with Vincenze’s sister’s bones that he could attest to hearing voices. Now today’s occurrence. That disturbed him.

To offer the arcossi at market was to sell the bones of one’s mother, or father, one’s daughter or son. It was like peddling holy relics. Here, come own the finger-bone of the goddess Vitalia and protect yourself from infertility! Here, come buy this arcosso that was my brother and thwart your enemies!

“They’ve agreed,” said Sylvio.

“But it was bitter,” said Aletta.

“I can imagine,” said Vincenze and he looked out across the fields.

So here I was trying to impart information about the bows known as acrosso. I didn’t want a huge information dump. That information could be built upon in subsequent segments. But it was important to impart enough information throughout the dialogue here in order for the reader to find some footing. And it was also important to keep the dialogue flowing, allowing for what might be normal pauses in speech as a person reviews what they’re about to say and sorting the flashes of information in their head. It was also a great opportunity for character development. We know Sylvio is a bowyer, that he finds making the acrossi strange, even disturbing. We know he has a deep and easy relationship with his wife, Aletta, as evidenced in their banter. We know Sylvio is a reluctant, even reticent person. And all of that is established through hints in the dialogue, and the information around that dialogue.

From Mountains of Ice

Ellipses and em dashes

Ellipses and em dashes are excellent tools when conveying certain information. However, in my experience as an editor, they are overused. Think of using them like spice and seasoning. Too much salt, and the dish is inedible. Too many chilies and you’re gagging.

So, if you have a trailing thought, great, use ellipses (three within a sentence, four at the end, wherein the fourth becomes the period to close the sentence.) But make ellipses rare, otherwise it will lose effect.

The em dash is also an effective tool if used sparingly. I used an em dash in the dialogue above where Aletta interrupts what Sylvio is saying. That’s a perfect use of an em dash: to indicate an interruption or an abrupt ending. Em dashes can also be used instead of parentheses where you have a bit of information or dialogue that is, if I may, parenthetical to the main discourse.

But generally, use a light hand with ellipses and em dashes. Let your words speak for you, not gimmickry.

Paragraph breaks

Generally, you employ a paragraph break for every change in speaker. By doing so you create a visual clue for your reader. And each segment of dialogue must be accompanied by opening and closing quotation marks — unless.

Unless what your speaker is saying spans more than one paragraph, in which case there is no closing quotation mark at the paragraph break, but there is an opening quotation mark at the beginning of the new paragraph. By doing so, you establish that it is the same character speaking. Thus:

“I’m going to the store now. I won’t be long.

“Oh, say, could you just check to make sure the order is ready? I forgot to do that. Call me when you have.”

“Sure. No worries.”

So, here we have two speakers, the one who’s going to the store, and the one who’s not. The first two lines are clearly the first speaker, while the last is the second. There are no closing quotes at the end of the first line, establishing that the second line belongs to the first speaker. We know there is a second speaker by the third line because of the closing quotes at the end of the second line. Clear as mud?

Just write dialogue as you would speak it

I guess the brunt of it all is to place yourself in the situation you’re writing, and create the dialogue as if you were a part of it. Don’t tell the dialogue. Speak the dialogue. And after you’re done writing that scene, read it out loud. If it flows naturally, and makes you want to find different voices for the characters, you’ve probably done your job well. If it sounds clunky, well, maybe you need to revise.

And as always, remember art is subjective. There isn’t actually any one correct way to do anything creative. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules. Just make sure when you do bend the rules you’re engaging your reader and keeping them turning the page because they’re positively entertained and enlightened.

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