On dialogue

Dialogue is fun to write and fun to read and so it’s no surprise that many writers turn to it to advance their plots and even at times to provide the bulk of their book’s structure. Plato of course famously framed his books in Socratic dialogues and he is considered by many to still be philosophy’s best writer. Ever. That’s quite the legacy. Depending on how you date the material found in the Bible – that is, who’s dating you trust – either earlier or later dialogue from God itself also gives us a model for the form, and in the running as well we must add ancient Egyptian texts and many from China, with Lao Tzu surely close to the top though it’s probable that Sinologists could correct me on that. The practice is tried and true to say the least. Six years ago on our site Mark Porter gave us some general tips on writing dialogue and his post (here) is worth revisiting; I also more recently wrote a post on characters’ perspectives which may prove useful to those interested (see here). In this week’s post what I want to discuss is both a step back from those more nuts and bolts pieces and also some further thoughts on practicalities. I’ll cover those areas in reverse order.

First of all on practicalities, and in keeping with the points I discussed in my earlier post on point(s) of view, the narrator and the narrator’s position should always be kept in mind when working on a section of dialogue. If the narration is done in first person then whatever is being said to the narrator will need to be kept far less descriptive; the narrator of course has no access to the thoughts of the person who is speaking with them and has only the verbalized words themselves, facial expressions, tone, stance, attitude, and accompanying physical actions to go on. This is an important dearth of knowledge. If the narration switches between perspectives then each character has only their own internal framework from which to understand and interact with their world and the others in their world; this is another important dearth of knowledge. If the narrator is however outside of the story itself and has a fuller or possibly even fullest (omniscient) knowledge of the characters, their thoughts and their feelings, then quite a bit more will be possible (though there will then be the other issues involved that were considered in my post at the end of September).

Regardless of the details involved I think that first we must ask ourselves why dialogue is even taking place; that is, what is the purpose in having this dialogue occur between these characters at this point in your story? What are you as the writer trying to accomplish by it and why are you using a dialogue to do it? If the intention is simply to make the unfolding story more enjoyable that might be enough of a reason but it probably isn’t. If the intention is to draw the reader into the story then that too might be enough of a reason but if so then why this device and not another? What is more likely to be a good reason for including some dialogue is to advance the plot through the revelation of previously unknown or unrevealed knowledge. This is especially the case when the narrator is a character in the actual story and therefore knows certain things while being ignorant of certain other things. Just like in real life hearing about a topic from someone else is a great way to learn. Another good reason to include dialogue is to flesh out or reveal to the reader something previously unknown about the character her/himself; the reader is made to understand the narrator, main character, supporting character, etc. better through what is learned of them via the dialogue. This can of course include backstory details and it can either be of the internal or external dialogue type (although conceptually internal dialogue is admittedly hard to justify as being “dialogue” rather than “monologue”). A final noteworthy justification that we might consider is the use of dialogue to allow the reader to figure out what is going on, and possibly even figure that out before the main character herself does. We are all familiar with the clunky style of having a character spell everything out for us at the end of a story; isn’t it much more satisfying to get clues from the characters and action in a book and then to solve and/or predict what is going on ahead of time yourself? Dialogue can be an important part of that process, and it can be used both to allow the reader to understand and foresee elements for themselves and then later to confirm whether or not their reasoning was correct.

What seems most important to keep in mind when writing is that at all times your dialogue be both pertinent and purposeful. There are many different ways to tell a story and including dialogue just for the sake of dialogue – or for no sake at all – should not be one of them. Dialogue is a tool, and like all tools it has a time and it has a place; let’s find the right one for each.

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