Dialogue: An Important Tool in Your Orchestra

We all know that dialogue is the “he said” “she said” of our stories, but what some fail to realize is that dialogue itself is an art form.  Some writers are extremely talented when it comes to dialogue and convince us of their characters’ humanity through what is said and how the characters say it, but then there are those who just don’t seem to get it.  I don’t by any means purport to be a genius when it comes to writing dialogue, but it is, I feel, one of the more important tools necessary to reveal character, heighten the plot, and create a connection between character and reader within a story.  However, in order to be successful with dialogue, the writer must strike the right balance between dialogue and other story-telling elements, know the difference between real and realistic conversation, and understand the proper conventions when it comes to dialogue tags.

When you first look at the page of a story, you can see immediately how the writer has chosen to balance dialogue, description, and summary within his or her writing.  There are some writers, like Franz Kafka in his story “The Metamorphosis,” who can get away with hardly any dialogue at all.  Although his story is entirely successful, would it be as successful without the few instances of dialogue?  At the same time, writers like Ernest Hemingway in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” can convey an entire story with nothing but dialogue, but it has been my experience that very few are talented enough to get by with dialogue alone.  It’s like having an entire orchestra at your disposal and only making use of the woodwind instruments.  While those instruments may be able to make beautiful music on their own, the sound is so much richer and more complex when combined with the sounds of the strings, keyboard, brass, and percussion instruments.

For example, take this passage from Maggie Stiefvater’s book Linger:

“I’ve been seeing wolves near my house,” Isabel said.  She shook the liquid in the cup.  “This tastes like lawn clippings.”

“It’s good for you,” I said.  I fervently wished she hadn’t taken it; the hot liquid felt like a safety net in this cold weather.  Even though I knew I didn’t need it anymore.  I still felt more firmly human with it in my hand.  “How close to your house?”

She shrugged.  “From the third floor, I can see them in the woods.  Clearly, they have no sense of self-preservation, or they’d avoid my father.  Who is not a fan.”  Her eyes found the irregular scar on my neck.

On her blog, Maggie writes, “I will confess, that in my beginning writerly years, this page would have read like this:

 “I’ve been seeing wolves near my house,” Isabel said.

“How close to your house?”

She shrugged.  “From the third floor, I can see them in the woods.  Clearly they have no sense of self preservation, or they’d avoid my father.  Who is not a fan.”

Maggie continues to say, “The thing is, there is nothing wrong with that stripped down [version].  It’s just that it’s missing so many opportunities to play with mood, character, setting.”  (For more of Maggie’s advice, see her blog post here).  I find that the key to good dialogue is striking the right balance between dialogue and description.

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite ways to pass the time when I’m sitting around waiting is to eavesdrop.  How many of you have sat down in a classroom, waiting for the professor to walk in, and just listened to the conversations around you?  I like to refer to it as channel surfing – slowly tuning in to different conversations until I find one that interests me, and then settling in to listen to the story.  (You’re all going to be paranoid about what you say around me now, aren’t you?)

But really, if you’re a good writer, it means you’re also a keen observer.  In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others—particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythms, dialect, and slang of various groups.  Loners […] often write it badly, or with the care of someone who is composing in a language other than his or her native tongue” (183).  The only real cure for this is to listen, and listen well.  To use Stephen King’s advice once more, “the key to writing good dialogue is honesty” (185).  As writers, it is our job to depict for the reader characters who represent what we observe in humanity.  If we are to convince our readers that our characters are real, then it’s only natural that their dialogue be grounded in reality.

However, there is a difference between writing “real” dialogue and “realistic” dialogue.  If you were to sit in Starbucks, for instance, and transcribe an entire conversation between two people, that would not translate well within your story.  Take this exchange for example:

“Hey Sara, what’s up?”

“Not much, you?”

“Not much.  I so hate Michael right now.”

“Ya, me too.”

“I mean, he’s like, SUCH a jerk.”

“I knooooooow, totally.”

“Ugh.  I just hate him!”

Total snore fest, right?  So two girls hate Michael.  So what?  The exchange tells me nothing more about the girls, about where they are, about what they’re doing.  Their conversation could go on for hours, and be transcribed across six pages, but if they don’t discuss anything of importance, or if we continue to learn nothing about the characters, we as readers won’t be interested.  Though the dialogue might be “real” and true to the way people speak, it does not mean it belongs in a story.  What we must aim for instead is “realistic” dialogue.  For example, this is a passage from my short story “The Escape”:

“So,” I said, “Rebec—”

“Beka,” she broke in. “My name is Beka.”

“Alright, Beka, would you care to explain why the Stable has suddenly become so popular?” I asked, slipping the rag back into my pocket and leaning against Clyde’s shiny flank.

She stood. Her red hair, now streaked oily black, clung to her face. The effect was rather grotesque, yet her posture was almost regal. “I thank you for your assistance, but it’s probably best for both of us if you know nothing.” She stepped forward, but I blocked her path.

“I don’t quite agree with that logic,” I said. “It’s far easier to lie for you if I know the full story.”

“I didn’t ask you to lie for me,” she said, crossing her arms. I was surprised to see her biceps were toned, like mine. “And what makes you think you’ll need to lie for me again?”

“First, you did ask me to lie for you, and second, while you don’t strike me as the kind of girl to hide in the same place twice, can you really afford to turn down a potential ally?”

Her eyes searched mine. “I have nothing to offer you,” she said.

“Maybe not, but I’m starving for entertainment.”

“Trust me, you don’t want my form of entertainment. I’d only bring you trouble.” Again, she tried to walk past me and I stopped her. “Do not make me hurt you,” she said.

While I don’t consider myself a pro at dialogue, the exchange between these two characters is, in my opinion, realistic.  It’s true to the way people interact with one another, but with something the coffee shop exchange lacks: every piece of dialogue here furthers the story purposefully, and it’s interspersed with what I call “stage directions” that reveal not just what the characters are doing, but how they are doing it, with clues as to the personalities of each character.  This bit of dialogue shows, whereas the coffee shop exchange merely tells.

Another thing to keep in mind when writing dialogue is what are called dialogue tags – the “he said”/“she said” at the end of each bit of dialogue.  Back when I first started searching the web for writing lessons I came across a document titled “Said is Dead” which listed all the myriad dialogue tags besides the usual “said.”  When I first stumbled upon this, I devoured it, going down the list, familiarizing myself with all the interesting words.  However, since then I’ve come to learn something important: said might be dead, but it’s dead for a reason.  When reading a story, “said,” paired with a pronoun or name, is the word that helps tell us who is speaking.  In the grand scheme of things, it is unimportant to our eyes, and we gloss over it, skipping to the name or pronoun so we can orient ourselves within the story, and then move on.  When a writer decides to put yelled, shrieked, cried, laughed, muttered, bellowed, and so on at the end of each piece of dialogue, it bogs down the reader so that he or she can’t fully appreciate the more important element – what each character is actually saying.

There’s still much more that can be said about dialogue and writing it convincingly and effectively, but I feel that striking a balance between dialogue and other techniques, being realistic in your portrayal of dialogue, and understanding that said is not dead are a good start to writing dialogue effectively.