You Talkin’ To Me? (Dialogue in Fiction)
To me, dialogue is the best part of writing a fiction story because it can be fun – especially when there is an emotional exchange or disagreement. But it can also be the most challenging because it has to be interesting and believable. If dialogue isn’t done well, the reader may decide not to read on.
The tricky thing about dialogue is that it has so many other jobs to do in the story. It must also:
- Advance the plot
- Reveal character
- Reflect mood or emotions
- Carry information or exposition
- Foreshadow what’s to come
- Have an emotional impact
While doing all of this, the writer must avoid the following problems when crafting dialogue:
- Being too stilted or formal – or always grammatically correct (I don’t believe I should have to expound further to convey the potential pitfalls of this problem)
- A dialect written in such a way that it’s hard to read (I’ve read that dialects from the Southern U.S. (Louisiana or Mississippi, for instance) are particularly difficult)
- Allowing a character to talk too much (if a character’s response is a paragraph or reads like a speech, it’s too long. In real life, someone like this would be interrupted long before they finished)
- Every character talking the same (the idea is that if you removed the dialogue tags, you could still tell who said what by how the dialogue is written)
- Predictable dialogue (unless they are psychics, the readers shouldn’t be able to anticipate the exact exchange between characters)
- Dialogue that is flat or bland (if the dialogue bores you, it will definitely bore the reader)
- Dialogue that is too expository (save heavy exposition for research papers or essays)
And the most common problem?
- Dialogue that is “on the nose” about what the character thinks or wants (in real-life, people will rarely give up their true intentions or motivations – especially if they have something to hide or are trying to get information from someone else)
This information came from notes that I took during my manuscript writing class that ended last month. Next week, I will share tips for great dialogue – also taken from my class notes.
So, here’s a sample scene:
“I did not know you would attend the Nineteenth Century Fashion Ball tonight, Sophie,” Angela said. “I presumed you would rather desire an evening nestling with your malodorous felines.”
“I should have suspected that you would be unable to attend this soiree deprived of your imperious sarcasm. However, to contribute to the success of the charity banquet, please deposit your broom in the closet, unless you propose to tidy the floors.”
“Why did you make your presence known?” Angela asked. “I am sure an invitation was not delivered to your plebeian residence.”
“My goal is to assure that you make an oaf of yourself in front of Mr. Joshua Robinson. He is the most eligible bachelor and it is my intention to reveal my interest in being his future wife. Of course, he must fathom that I am better suited to the task than you are. Unless he has established no standards at all, he would not select you as his partner for the first dance, for you have no grace at all. Not to mention the layers of your dress drape upon your waist in a matronly manner; so much so that you bear an uncanny resemblance to his own great-grandmother.”
Angela planted her hands on her hips. “I most certainly do not!”
“You most certainly do,” Sophie said.
“Okey dokey, ya’ll break it up right now, ya hear? Fight’n like a coon n’ possum in a burlap sack jus’ won’t do!” Gail said as she wormed her way between Sophie and Angela.
I guess I have some work to do, eh?
What do you love (or dislike) about reading (or writing) dialogue? Feel free to share any other dialogue problems that you’ve encountered :)