Talk Write — On Dialogue

What’s So Important About Dialogue?

Have you ever attended a staged play?  If you have you understand how limited the stage is.  I’m not talking about the huge Phantom Of The Opera type productions; I’m talking about the sorts of plays your local Civic Theatre might stage.  What is possible on stage in the way of settings, special effects, dramatic action (wars, car chases and such), even lighting, music and sound are very limited.  So what’s left?  Mostly dialogue.  And yet, the art of the stage can be very powerful.

Thinking about this, what I drew from it as a writer is that dialogue is perhaps the most important tool the novelist possesses.  It can open so much information to the audience and reveals the deep, powerful human motivations and emotions of the characters which is the basis of the story conflict itself, especially for the writer of literary fiction.

A Common Problem

Try this experiment with me.  First, quiet your brain for a minute.  Now, call to mind a person you love very much.  Think about them for just a few seconds.  Now, imagine this scenario:  You are somewhere with this person (you may choose where) and they tell you that they had a difficult night last night and did not sleep well.  How would that person relate this information to you?  Exactly how would they say it?  Write it down.  Now, imagine a professional person whom you only know as an acquaintance (a doctor, lawyer, teacher, minister, accountant, etc.) and follow the same steps.  Think about this person for a few seconds; choose a setting where you see them; and then have them tell you they had a difficult night last night and did not sleep well.  How exactly do they relate this information to you?  What do they say?  Write that down too.  Now, of course, compare the two quotes.  It is basically the same information but my guess is that the two pieces of dialogue are articulated in two very different ways.

One common problem with dialogue is that when two characters are speaking to each other it can sound like both characters are the same person because they speak in the same manner.  That gets boring for the reader and it indicates that both characters grew up in the same town, perhaps in the same family.  Maybe they both did grow up in the same town but, even then, the reader should be able to distinguish who is speaking by the manner in which they speak.  But in my mind, even brothers or sisters do not express themselves identically and neither should your characters.

What you did in the experiment above was infuse your loved one’s voice with all of the personal information you know about them.  You probably actually heard them speak in your mind’s ear, that grandmother or uncle, and heard the tonal (that slight Nordic accent, for instance) and rhythmic characteristics, unique to their voice and manner of speech.  This is something important to keep in mind when writing dialogue.

An Example

Here is a bit of dialogue I wrote for Wanderer Come Home, my ebook novel.  As you read this excerpt, listen to the two voices talking and, also, notice that I give the reader a bit of stage direction as to how to hear Bertie’s voice.  The other character in this scene is Axel Browne, my main character.

“. . . So Bertie, what were you planning to do with that big stick you were brandishing when I showed up.”

“I was going to whop you with it if I needed to,” said Bertie in a sort of loud whisper.

Bertie always spoke that way: as if telling you a secret, something he could confide in you but did not want others overhearing.

“But boy am I glad to see you.  To see anyone actually.  I’m about to go stir-crazy out here in the boondocks, alone.  I ain’t used to it, Browne.  I need people.  Conversation, you know?  I hope you can stay a while.  I see you’ve got a new dog.  What’s his name?”

“Her name is Dixie.”

“No, this dog isn’t Dixie.  Dixie was that ugly, wiry-looking mutt—rat terrier or something.  Wasn’t that Dixie?”

“Yes, that was Dixie the second.”

“Dixie the second?” said Bertie, surprised.

So in this case, there is not a huge difference between Bertie’s and Axel’s voices but there is enough of a difference for us to tell who is speaking.

When I wrote Bertie, I was working part time at a supermarket.  And there, I worked with a fellow I liked very much.  And he had this wonderful way of bringing intimacy to every conversation by speaking to me in a loud whisper when there was really no need to.  This friend at the store became my inspiration for Bertie.  And thus, it was very easy to write this dialogue.  All I had to do was think of my friend and let him talk to Axel.

There’s much more that can be said about dialogue so maybe we’ll discuss it again another time.  But until next time—