Talk. Most of us do it all day, every day, and sometimes in our sleep. But when it comes to our writing, talking transmogrifies into something terrifying called “dialogue” and we run away screaming, and hide behind the sofa, and mumble that we can’t go on, that it’s too fucking hard, all because “dialogue”.
Come out from behind the sofa and get the dust bunnies out of your hair. Dialogue is not a monster.
But that’s not to say we can’t turn it into one, with our adverbs and our stilted prose, and our refusal to use contractions, because this is a novel and not the real world so our characters have to talk like they spent their formative years in an Edwardian Boarding School, wtf.
Harry, who is eight years old, and Gretchen, his older sister who has just had her tenth birthday, are lost in the woods.
“I do not think we should go this way.”
“I do not agree with you. This is definitely the way we should go.”
“No, I insist. We really ought to go this way.”
“I have torn out my eyes with my fingernails to avoid reading any more of this drivel.”
Aside from the fact that no children in the history of the universe have ever sounded like that – no, not even in an Enid Blyton novel – we have no fucking idea who is saying what. Although we can, it is true, empathise wholeheartedly with whoever has clawed at their own face to escape that turgid exchange.
That first sentence is exposition – otherwise known as telling our Dear Readers shit they could find out in a much more entertaining way. For example:
“You’re only eight,” Gretchen yelled. “We’re going this way, Harry!”
“I’m not following you anywhere. You got lost in McDonald’s on your birthday.” Harry started walking in the opposite direction. “Two years older than me doesn’t make you smarter than me, Gretchy.”
“Don’t call me that, you little twerp,” said Gretchen. “It would serve you right if a witch came out of the woods and gobbled you up!”
Harry laughed and didn’t even bother turning around. “Only girls believe in witches.”
I’m pretty sure Harry will come upon a gingerbread house and find himself trapped inside an oven, whereupon he will Learn An Important Lesson about Something Or Other.
Dialogue has to move our story on and contribute to either character or plot development. It connects the Dear Reader with our characters. It’s grease on the axle of our story locomotive and without it the bloody wheels fall off. It’s the chew-chew for our choo-choo.
Using the correct punctuation is the nuts and bolts of our dialogue mag-lev. It seems like a small thing, where to put a comma rather than a full stop. In dialogue. So that it, makes sense to our, beleaguered, Dear Readers. Catch my drift, hombres and hombresses?
- Read it aloud – if we sound like an alien trying to master the English (or any other) language, then we re-write (unless of course our character is an alien trying to master … etc)
- Get rid of the ell-why’s – you know whys
- Think about dialogue tags and remember that “said” is an invisible word.
- Here’s a simple little flow chart I use to remind me where it’s at in the dialogue hierarchy:
And lastly, an uplifting quote from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights Dialogue Monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a Monster of Dialogue.” He totally said that. Google it, when you come out from behind the sofa.