I’m currently writing (or more precisely thinking about) a short story that involves no dialogue. The reasons are many and varied, but the short version is that I and a circle of some other literary types are challenging each other to write more short stories and this month we’re tasked ourselves with the additional caveat of no dialogue.
It’s a tricky one, if only because as modern readers we’ve had dialogue rammed down our throats for decades. Whilst surfing t’interweb about the subject I came across this in a list of advice on good dialogue:
“3. Develop your ear. Listen carefully to actual people talking, not characters on TV, in movies, or on the radio – the latter kind of dialogue is always artificial, unrealistic, and unconvincing on the written page. No one actually talks like “The Sopranos” or “Friends” or “ER” or “Masterpiece Theater”. Sorry. Don’t mimic stage dialogue either.”
This is nonsense. You’ll find similar tired and mediocre platitudes from many other sources encouraging budding writers to churn out the same tired and mediocre dialogue we’ve been subjected to for years. Despite the apparent falsity of such dialogue, when performed or read it can be very natural.
The idea that any dialogue, whether from TV, film, stage or book is anything like realistic speech is an utter fallacy and any writer who tries to write their dialogue to mimic true speech properly would end up doing something very avant garde and probably unreadable. As a writer it’s your job to communicate what is being said in an appropriate manner and that means admitting to the fact that your characters’ words are contrived and planned by you, the author.
I cannot say this enough. Do not try to make your characters speak in the same patterns as real people. Real people stutter, repeat, umm and aah, pause for thought and generally make up what they are saying as they go along. In real life we filter out most of this unnecessary verbiage and concentrate on the words and message. We can do that subconsciously while we are listening, we don’t want to be doing that consciously while we are reading. They are very different functions.
Imagine how much you’d want to punch the author if a character inserted the word “right?” after every clause, as some people do. Or “okay?”. Or “so”, “and”, “so to speak” and all the other verbal placeholders we use in everyday conversation. Another one that crops up is adding the name of the person you are addressing at the end of a sentence, particularly questions. On the page, how confusing would it get if you did this in your writing, with a forest of names littering your dialogue.
The other problem with being literal about written dialogue is that artificial attempts to introduce character through speech idioms usually detract from what is being said. The content of your dialogue and any contextual description should be more than enough for readers to understand the sort of tone, pace and volume of the words. By forcing a strange word order to imbue some kind of unique character to a speaker will usually end up getting very repetitive unless you can do it subtly. Similarly, trying to write accents is usually a very bad idea unless you are going to do it for all of your characters (Irvine Welsh, for example).
Rather than ignoring scripted dialogue, you should seek it out. Script writers will generally not put in particular accent, speech patterns or contractions into dialogue because it’s the job of the actor and, more importantly, the director to make those decisions. Through the magical process of acting and direction what can look somewhat clunky on a page will flow into the ears of the audience from the stage or screen. Good dialogue on screen started out as good dialogue written down. In regards to prose, you must trust your reader to be the actor and director. Every reader will come up with inner voices for the characters that are suitable and appropriate. Let them do so without overly forcing your own view.
A script may tell a director that Bob enters the room, and he is angry. The director knows the context for the following dialogue. You can do the same for your written dialogue. A reader who is reading speech from a character they know to be angry will understand the volume and tone without you having to end every sentence with an exclamation mark. Give the reader-as-director/ actor enough information and then let them do the rest themselves. It’s this interaction that is enjoyable and makes the reader connect with the words.
If you want the reader to imagine the speech in a particular way, let them know, simply and directly. If someone is slurring their words because they are drunk, make sure the reader knows they are drunk rather than try to write it literally. Similarly, you can’t force timing into dialogue easily, so if someone is being slow and deliberate or gabbling on at a rate of knots, you need to tell the reader. The Show Don’t Tell police will throw their hands in the air. Good – they’ve managed to throttle the life out of good narrative enough as it is. Good dialogue will subtly reinforce this sense in the reader with the correct use of words and the odd quirk. It shouldn’t ram it down people’s throats.
Another thing to remember is that dialogue is part of your prose form and hence is part of grammar just like the rest of the sentence. When speaking, we commit run-on sentences, poor subject-object placement and a variety of other sins because it’s transient not permanent; the essence of what is being said can usually be understood without the grammatical guidelines that exist to keep writing clear.
A person in real life may say:
“Come over here, right, and pick up this ball, the ball, and then I want you to bounce it in that circle, right, the one over there, right Bob?”
Now add “he said” to the end of that sentence. Do you really want to read line after line of that?
“Come over here, Bob,” he said. “Pick up the ball and bounce it in that circle.”
Wholly ‘unrealistic’ and much more pleasant to read for page after page.
A trick that you can generally get away with is sentence fragments, but don’t use them too much. This can convey a more clipped, irritated tone:
“Come here,” he said. “Ball. Circle. Bounce it.”
“Come here,” he said with a wink. “Ball. Circle. Bounce it.”
With that last one I cheated, of course, in that I gave the character a nonverbal cue for the reader to connect with. It can be tricky writing nonverbal communication (or non-verbal depending on preference). Things we take for granted in communicating face-to-face look awkward if committed to paper in every detail. Describing every gesture, expression and nuance would flatten even the most lyrical composition. Think reader-as-director/ actor and concentrate on the most pertinent points. The reader’s mind will embellish your timeless prose with all manner of subtleties that fit. That’s why reading requires imagination; don’t deny your readers the opportunity to use theirs.
The chap who offered this advice, amongst some good and some not-so-good tips, concluded:
“How will you know when your dialogue is improving? It will become so convincing and powerful that you’ll hardly notice it – it will be like listening to real human beings, where you notice the content of what they say, not how they say it. Your reader will concentrate on your story, not on the people talking and the way they talk.“
My emphasis. Now that’s good advice.