Knowing the why and what of dialogue is all good and well, but just as important is the how of weaving it into your narrative. Whether we like it or not, writers are influenced by what we watch or listen to, just as much as what we read. I know I am. Snappy dialogue from American cinema always seems to be sneaking into my writing, whether its Tarrantino’s box fresh monologues, James Bond’s crisp one liners, or John Mclane’s abrupt utterings, ‘Yippee ka yay!’, its tempting to try for something similar, right? Well don’t.
Here’s why. First off, film, television, stage and radio scripts are dialogue heavy because the scriptwriters are usually working with or for a director who will be providing the visuals. For these mediums, dialogue is the only way to really show what happening behind the wooden acting. Hamlet is a really good example of this, with Hamlet launching into a long soliloquy every now and then, to make sure the audience are on the same page as him. We even have to put up with Anakin (sorry Hayden, it’s got to be said) moaning like a little kid how his teacher is picking on him, because the director isn’t sure the viewers will pick all that up from the earlier scenes in Attack of the Clones. In writing however, we get a more direct and intimate way of engaging with our POV characters by dropping straight into their minds and hearing their thoughts. Ergo, vis-a-vis, concordantly, we don’t have to have so much dialogue.
There is of course another school of thought who believe that dialogue should be true to how people actually talk. Arrgh!!! Why subject a reader to that kind of crud? Listen to yourself talking, wait, bar that, writers aren’t exactly the best verbal communicators. Listen to some other people talking, at home, school or work. Most of it is crap that is said just to fill the emptiness in between the minute meaningful things that people say, e.g. ‘how you doing?’ ‘What else?’ Listen to the ladies at work talking about their soaps (opera) for an hour and half, what are you having for dinner tonight, are you doing anything this weekend, blah, blah, blah. Meaningful would be something like, ‘sometimes when I’m alone, I contemplate suicide because of all the badly written dialogue that I have to read through.’ Okay, sorry, I’m being cynical. Meaningful dialogue would be something like, ‘I’m worried that I’m spending too much money and won’t be able to pay the mortgage.’ You get the point.
Long story short, dialogue in writing shouldn’t be so exhaustive that the reader feels a little adrift from the plot. Dialogue is just one of many tools that you have to drive your story forward or to unveil a previously unknown fact about your characters.
Dialogue is action and thus forms a part of what people would call showing, as opposed to telling, which would then be the narrative. Everyone harps on about how you should show instead of tell. Bull. A couple of years ago I listened to a Writing Show podcast in which the lady presenter pointed out that there needs to be a balance. Too much showing means you risk leaving your readers either incredibly bored, or in the dark about certain aspects of your ‘world’ or plot. Some writers go on about how a line of dialogue should be able to express whether the character is happy or sad, excited or frustrated, confused or angry, blah, blah. Lets look at some examples of why they are wrong.
‘I need you to go,’ said Andrew.
What does that tell you? Not much except that Andrew wants to someone to go.
‘I need you to go,’ said Andrew with a smile – or – ‘I need you to go,’ said Andrew with a frown.
Ah, ha. Now you see where I’m going with this. Just by adding a little narrative context, I’ve changed the whole meaning of the dialogue. Try this on for size:
‘I need you to go,’ shouted Andrew – or – ‘I need you to go,’ cried Andrew.
Now if you had a page of dialogue with only the he said, she said, inserted in the right places, your reader would be completely clueless to the emotional play between the characters that you get from watching a persons face and body language when they speak. Simple pointers like a person shifting their weight from one foot to another can connote far more than a paragraph of speech. Therefore narrative needs to be blended in with dialogue, especially if it’s a particularly long piece of dialogue or when there are other things going on that add context to the dialogue or hint at the emotional impact of the dialogue.