Nearly every fiction lecture I’ve ever given begins with this statement.Writing fiction is about creating the illusion of real life. It’s our jobs as story tellers to give our readers the right amount of smoke and mirrors so that they leave our stories, our books feeling as if they were included in the lives of real people, with believable situations and who speak in a believable way.
As I am thinking of dialogue, I am reminded of Grace Paley who I heard say that “Is that true?” was the question she asked herself in revising everything she ever wrote. Is this character real? Are their circumstances real? Is their speech real? Have I honored the spirit of the character and what they would do and not interjected my own thoughts and beliefs? And so forth.
This could not be more important, in my opinion, than in the case of dialogue.
I don’t believe in rules. I believe in guidelines. Nearly every rule about writing has been broken beautifully and effectively. You can get away with anything in writing (IF it works).
Below are some of the guidelines that have been effective for me and some that have been given to me by a few brilliant writers.
1. Dialogue is Spice Not the Main Course. In fiction narration and scene are your meat and potatoes—your tofu and vegetables—and dialogue is merely salt and pepper (at least in most cases). Narration for the sake of story. Dialogue for the sake of characters.
2. Avoid the dialogue trap. If you rely too heavily on dialogue you could easily find yourself in talky talk hell where your characters are paper dolls talking back and forth about nothing for pages. “Hell how are you? “”Fine how are you?” “What did you do today?” ETC.
3. MIC. Dialogue has to work hard, even harder than narration. If you are writing at your height your dialogue should (M) move the story; (I) inform the reader; and (C) characterize. I recommend making sure your dialogue is doing at least two of the three.
4. Boil it Down. Distill your dialogue down to its essence. Cut, then cut some more. Makes sure what’s left is important. There should be no talky talk hell left on your pages.
5. Three lines. Sometimes I have to trick myself into revision. One thing I find that works is to go through each passage of dialogue on my pages. If I have more than three lines of dialogue that is not intentionally a didactic passage, then I know I have work to do in paring it down in some way.
6. Your characters have bodies. Don’t ever forget that you are not creating Flat Bob on the Page but living breathing people who inhibit bodies. Instead of just having words flying back and forth between characters, allow them to inhibit their bodies and to live, breath, act, react, be silent in them.
7. Be authentic. Pay attention to the ways in which your characters speak. Find other ways to highlight your characters' region, race, ethnicity, etc.
I asked a few writers that I'm aquainted with what advice they would give on dialogue in a word, a phrase or a sentence. Below are some of the results.
Two writers recommend eavesdropping. I’m a fan of it myself, though my reasoning is simply because I’m nosey.
Randall Kenan--Wonderful exercise: Keep a wee notebook. Eavesdrop on folk in public places. Examine later in quiet. A moving way to study American English.
Chris Offutt-- Eavesdrop, then write it down.
Zelda Lockhart --Show expressions between dialogue.
Robert Olen Butler-- All good literary dialog has subtext.
Janice Eidus --Be natural , authentic , and as true to the unique voice of your individual character as possible. Reading plays to see/hear dialogue is inspiring and illuminating. I read, among others, Garcia Lorca, Tina Howe, Beth Hemley, Anna Deveare Smith, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet.
Of course there are many more writers of note out there with great things to say about dialogue. I only asked a few friends as I want to tap others of them for other craft issues for this blog in the future.
What are your opinions on writing dialogue? What problems do you find yourself grappling with regarding this topic?