Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Importance of Dialogue

Elizabeth Zelvin

We all know that dialogue is one of the most important aspects of fiction, as well as one of the most enjoyable. But why? At Killer Nashville this August, I participated in a panel on the topic (“Talk Is Cheap”) that came up with a number of different answers—all valid—and, in the short time available, managed to leave out perhaps the most crucial reason, which I didn’t think of until the next day, while chatting with one of my fellow panelists.

The initial question at the panel was, “What is the purpose of dialogue?” When I first heard it (in an email from the moderator to the panelists weeks before the conference), my first reaction was that for me, that’s the wrong question. Somehow it made me picture the writer deliberately fabricating dialogue that would serve whatever he or she thought the purpose was and plugging it in to make sure that that element of a well-constructed novel or short story was present.

For me, dialogue is intuitive. In fact, where the creative process usually starts is with characters—already in existence in previous work or new ones—talking in my head. At the panel itself, as soon as someone answered the question by saying that the primary purpose of dialogue for him was to advance the plot, I realized I had an opinion after all: for me, it’s to build character. We talked a lot about what makes good and bad dialogue; how a character’s voice may differ from the narrative voice; how dialogue can vary according to the gender, education, age, and physical location of the characters. Writers and readers have varying opinions about whether a dialect should be rendered or implied and whether, when, and how much profanity or obscenity is acceptable.

Since I have written both male and female characters in the first-person narrative voice and given them a lot to say in dialogue, I am well aware of how differently men and women express themselves, even if they belong to a common culture in other ways. The theme of my mystery series is recovery. My protagonist, Bruce, is a recovering alcoholic with a smart mouth (and a good heart, of course). His sidekick, Barbara, is a world-class codependent who’s addicted to helping people and minding everybody’s business. She’s also a non-stop talker and an inveterate enthusiast. (Come to think of it, in the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober I had all her dialogue in run-on sentences, but once I started showing the manuscript around, I quickly learned that didn’t work.) And Bruce’s second sidekick, Jimmy, is less cynical than Bruce and has been sober a lot longer, but he’s also a guy.

What might Barbara say to Bruce that Jimmy would never say? Example: “I think it’s absolutely fantastic that you have a whole year of sobriety, sweetie.”

What might Jimmy say to Bruce that Barbara would never say? Example: “You’ve gotta stop leading with your dick, bro.”

And if you think the epithets “sweetie” and “bro” make it too easy, take them out. Without them, the voice in each of those lines still makes the gender of the speaker obvious.

The mots d’escalier (wonderful French expression for the words you think of on the stairs afterward, when it’s too late) on this topic are so crucial that I can’t believe we all forgot during the panel: Dialogue is the most expressive way to present conflict. This is true regardless of whether the work in question is a TV sitcom or Shakespeare.

No matter how many times it’s been used, in the right circumstances, “I did not!” “Yes, you did!” “I did not!” “Yes, you did!” can still get a laugh.

On the other end of the spectrum:

Mercutio: O calm, dishonorable, vile submission.
Alla stoccata carries it away.
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?
Mercutio: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives, that I mean to make bold withal, and, as you shall use me hereafter, dry-beat the rest of the eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out.
Tybalt: I am for you.
Romeo: Gentle Mercutio, put your rapier up.
Mercutio: Come, sir, your passado.
...I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene One)

Of course, the sword fight represented by those ellipses (...) expresses conflict very well indeed. A fight, a chase, or a competition are all forms of conflict that advance the action. But there’s not much difference between Shakespeare and Men in Tights until the writer puts words into the characters’ mouths.


Sheila Connolly said...

Love the "mots d'escalier." I've got lots of 'em.

I agree with your assessment, that dialog conveys something about the character speaking. What they say may be illogical or irrelevant, but that's the way real people speak. Like, say, "Jennifer's dead." "Oh my god, I have to wash my hair." Make sense only to the speaker, but it tells us something about how she thinks.

But one problem for writers is taking what you hear the characters saying in your head, and setting it down on paper so that it doesn't look ridiculous. Dialect is one problem. Punctuation is another--how many ellipses can you put in a run-on sentences? If you do it right, it's seamless, and the reader hears what you hear. If you do it wrong, the reader is left saying "wha?" and is pulled out of the story.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good points, Sheila. Can you imagine a guy saying, "oh my god, I have to wash my hair"? And having been brought up to call dead dead, I'm still amazed by how many people say "passed away." Can you imagine putting "passed away" in the mouth of a character in a historical novel set in Shakespeare's time?

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
The lurker jumps in again.... I agree: dialogue is important to define characters. It's how we understand people in real life. When we add body language and mannerisms to it, the reader starts developing a complete picture of the character and the situation he or she is in.
My two NYPD homicide detectives are a case in point: Castilblanco is cynical and acerbic and speaks that way; Chen is mysterious and incisive, her mystique exacerbated by her Asian Mona Lisa smile. I love dialogue--it's an essential ingredient to spinning a good yarn.
@Sheila, dialect or second languages open a whole other can of worms. I've found it best to suggest it and return to normal speech because it can seem contrived and tiresome after a bit. How much to use depends on your audience, of course. I assume mine is a cross-section of American society.
Happy holidays, everyone!