Monday, May 6, 2019

Writing and the Art of Dialogue

Dialogue. It's easy. It's people talking. How could anything be easier than writing down a conversation? Well, it is very easy. It's also not very interesting. The next few posts will focus on why dialogue is more than just talking, and the importance of all the things that go along with the spoken word.

This post covers a simple thing - talking versus thinking. With dialogue, everything is placed out in the open, cards face-up on the table. That will communicate the discussion, but this is writing, so there is the advantage of hopping into someone's mind. This gives the reader access to subtext, inside jokes, how the character approaches the conversation, and many more exciting features that just don't show up between the quotes.

Here's a simple example. In this piece, my friend says something patently stupid. Just think of the most mind-staggeringly stupid thing you've heard someone say - my friend just said that. As a writer, I want to show the reader that the main character feels that his friend is an idiot for saying this. Dialogue is one route to do this, but let's explore the options:

  • How could he think that? My friend is clearly an idiot. (narrative approach)
  • He's an idiot. (internal dialogue)
  • Jim realized his friend was an idiot. (aside)
  • "Dude, you're an idiot," I said matter-of-factly. (dialogue)

The last example, the dialogue route, is the one that is usually used, and with it, you get what you pay for. The idea is expressed, with a little description thrown in for fun. It can even support the character by showing a straight-forward response to the situation. But the other approaches offer their own pros and cons.

Narrative approach - as described - retains the narrator's voice and approach. This maintains the story's rhythm and pacing, and can help break large blocks of back-and-forth talking. With this, we remain as the storyteller without getting buried in conversation. However, if the dialogue is brisk and rapid-fire, a break into narration can ruin that pacing with one sentence. Narrative serves the reader best when it offers an insight that is not going to otherwise show up in the spoken word.

Internal dialogue is a tricky tool for the writer, but an effective one when used properly. The best route to take internal dialogue is to demonstrate a turbulence within the character. Doubts, emotional challenges, or differences of opinion within the character's mind can really shine when turned into internal arguing. A common route is to offer the internal voice as the character's moral barometer or other driver that does not always get expressed in the character's actions. The important part of internal dialogue is that it needs to bring something that stands out consistently and contributes to the art of storytelling.

Asides are often used in the third-person, when a personal observation is made from a narrator outside the story. When Shakespeare used such moments, the story would pause and the actor would speak directly to the audience, providing them with some subtext. An aside should stand out from simple narration, as if another voice took over altogether. If you are writing a story and want to interject an aside, read it aloud. Go through the story, then read the aside in a different voice. If it feels like a valuable interjection, you are doing it right.

Of course, this is just one technique to discuss how to say things. The next post will be about whether or not to say things, and how to use the silence for effect.

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