The other day, in my first Writing Tips post, I wrote about said-bookisms and the challenges of dialogue attribution. Just to reiterate, the key to effective dialogue attribution is showing readers the emotions and thoughts of those characters who speak rather than telling readers what is happening inside the characters’ heads. In real life, when we speak to someone, we rely on gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, and the actual spoken word to know what that person is thinking and feeling. Writing dialogue is no different. By using gestures and facial expressions to add emotional context to the actual lines spoken by our characters, we can convey all we need to, without relying on said-bookisms.
In the comments that followed my post, my good friend Tim Rohr raised a second point relating to dialogue. To quote Tim: “A flip side to this discussion is the fact that for the most part, dialog is not conversation. That is, it’s not conversational. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part dialog has structure and rules to it that actual conversation does not.”
Tim asked me to expound on the dialogue v. conversation point in another post, and so here I go.
We sometimes hear people say that for dialogue in books to work, our characters need to speak just like real people do. That’s really not quite right. If you listen to people talk, you quickly realize that even the most glib among us are actually remarkably inarticulate creatures. Our speech is littered with “you knows” and “ehrs” and “umms” and “likes”. We repeat ourselves, we take forever to make a point, and then we repeat ourselves some more.
The truth is that as writers we should strive to write our dialogue so that it reads the way we wish people spoke. I am all for putting contractions into dialogue to make it sound more natural. I believe as well that to make written conversations sound natural, we can sprinkle in a few of the verbal tics I mentioned before — an occasional “you know?” or “like” can go a long way toward adding verisimilitude to your scenes. But remember that like cumin in chili, a little goes a long way. Too many instances of that sort of verbal habit just becomes annoying. You know?
More to the point, as Tim suggests in what he said the other day, dialogue in written scenes should not meander the way our own conversations do. We are writing in an age of lower word counts; editors and agents are looking for books in the 90,000-110,000 word range. We don’t have the luxury of letting a conversation unwind slowly or careen from topic to topic. This is not to say that your characters need to rush to the point in every conversation — the object is to balance the realism of the actual spoken word with the exigencies of narrative and pacing. Just as an action scene in a novel needs to build, gathering energy and tension toward a meaningful culmination, so conversations among your characters should gather momentum as well. You don’t want to rush it, but you do want the characters to get to the point, you do want your revelations to build upon one another, and you want the conversation to end with a punch, a key moment that ties together all that’s been said and propels your plot forward.
I’ll add as well something that I once heard said by the great Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplays for, among other films, The American President, The Social Network, and A Few Good Men (dramatic script and screenplay), and also created and was the main creative force behind The West Wing. Sorkin said that good dialogue has a musical quality. It has cadence, rhythm, themes, and codas. I have found that thinking of my dialogue musically has helped me improve as a writer. You might want to think of it that way, too.
Here’s another excerpt from an early chapter in Thieftaker (Tor Books, July 2012). This isn’t the end of the scene, but it does have it’s own small culmination, and there is something of that musical structure in the way the topic circles around on itself:
Eventually, as the crowd in the tavern began to thin and the noise died down, Kannice approached his table again.
“Derry was in a hurry to leave,” she said, pulling Diver’s chair around and placing it beside Ethan’s.
“Not really. He has to work the wharves come morning.”
“Who was that came to talk to him?” she asked, her eyes fixed on her hands as she toyed with one of the silver rings on her fingers.
She doesn’t miss a thing.
“One of his mates from the wharf, I think.”
A faint smile touched her lips as she glanced up at him through her eyelashes. “Why do you protect him?”
“Why do you harry him?”
“If ever there was a man who needed harrying . . .” She trailed off, letting the words hang.
He knew better than to argue. “I’ll tell him to keep it outside next time,” he said, an admission in the words.
They sat in silence for a few moments. Eventually Ethan took her hand. She met his gaze, smiled.
“You say it went well with Corbett?” she asked
“It did. I found all that his wife had lost. He was pleased.”
“And the thief?”
Ethan exhaled and made a sour face. “Daniel Folter.”
Kannice rolled her eyes. “Another fool.”
“Aye,” Ethan said, conceding the point as far as Diver was concerned.
“You let him go?”
“Of course.” He started to tell her that doing so might well prove to have been a mistake, but thought better of it. That would have carried the conversation back around to Diver, and Ethan didn’t want that.
“Why is it that you’re so forgiving of fools?” she asked him.
“Maybe I see enough of my younger self in them to think they’re not beyond hope.”
She shook her head, the corners of her mouth quirking upward again. Then she stood, moved to stand behind his chair and began to knead the muscles in his neck, her small fingers deft and strong. He closed his eyes and tipped his head forward.
“Just because there’s hope for them, doesn’t mean it’s your job to save them all,” she whispered.
“Now you tell me.”
The conversation covers a lot of ground — this guy Diver, Ethan’s business with a merchant named Corbett, the solving of that particular mystery, then back to Diver and finally to a small glimpse at Ethan’s past. Along the way, it also tells a lot about Kannice and Ethan’s relationship. On the other hand, it’s not very long, and it doesn’t read as terribly rushed.
Finding that balance in dialogue — easing the tension between finding a conversational tone and also keeping the narrative moving forward — can take some practice. But with time you’ll find that your stories and books are leaner, more directed, and ultimately more readable. And that, of course, is the point.