People talk funny. I’m considering ending this post right here.
But that wouldn’t be fair. Writing dialogue in fiction is a tricky little monkey because it wears probably the most hats out of any of the devices in your narrative tool kit. Before we go on, take a moment to appreciate the image of a tricky monkey trying on a lot of hats. Heh. Rad.
Dialogue needs to exposit the plot without being too obvious, represent the atmosphere of the setting, as well as indicate a character’s specific values. Instinctual solutions to this triple-headed problem are often, ehm, shitty.
Kind of in the same way every novice thesbian reads every character in a British accent, the writer’s most common pratfall is raising the dialogue to give it a touch of misplaced class. “Stilted dialogue,” is probably a phrase you’ve read in a book or movie review and refers to the dialogue being stiff, overly-prosaic and “unnaturally formal.” It’s an easily justified solution– “My character’s a class act”– but it commonly bores the reader to hell and back. Worse, it’ll show your ignorance of how Victorian age gentlefolk actually talked because, let’s face it, you don’t know from personal experience, you just watched Pride and Prejudice and thought that’d it look smart on paper. It doesn’t. It’s boring and stupid. Moving on.
The other direction is one I’m more likely to head myself: utilizing dialect. There’s some pratfalls here, too. The most obvious one is looking like a bigot. Writing, say, a Chinese character in broken English would probably earn you a lot of hate. Another danger is steeping the dialogue in so much slang that the meaning is unrecognizable. There are exceptions to this, of course (Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, for example), but generally speaking you still want the reader to understand what’s being telegraphed. A third danger is similar to the stilts– which is an over reliance on the same dialect. I have this problem that I’ll end up injecting southern drawls into all of my stories, regardless of genre. I’m working on it. But I opt for this direction more often than not because dialect is a means of relaying attitude–and yes, sometimes that attitude is hoity-toity high class Bourgeois bullshit– reflective of the character saying the words.
Over explicative dialogue is also a bummer. I call them “information dumps.” It’s when a character breaks down the plot without nuance and spoon feeds the reader “the grand reveal.” Sometimes it’s unavoidable. For readability and logistical reasons, eventually a character needs to squeal. I don’t always handle this well myself but studying hardboiled detective fiction has offered a blunt solution– make the Macguffin of the story the information itself. Noir fiction achieves this by making the primary action of the novel a series of interviews rife with exposition in a way that seems natural to the needs of the primary character. There’s a suggestion there that applies to all genres– if you need to exposit some plot, enact an interrogation of some kind. Is it a perfect solution? Well, nothing’s gonna be, but as far as my money’s worth squeezing information out of a character tracks more naturally than unsolicited explanations for what’s going on.
Between the tasks of characterizing, expositing and reflecting the setting through dialogue is a golden opportunity to triple down on all three. It requires doing something rather unintuitive at first. Go off track. Instead of having a character simply stating their goal or the nature of their world (which I understand, sometimes ya gotta do), have them fixate momentarily on something non-sequitor. This loop around the immediate problem at hand provides a subtle glance at the setting while keying the reader into how a character thinks– while still participating with plot driven dialogue. Let me dummy up an example:
“Jess, we got to get goin’.”
“The flowers haven’t blossomed yet. Why haven’t the flowers blossomed yet, Jake?”
“Jess? We need to leave, now-like.”
In three short lines of dialogue we know that Jake is urgently concerned with the current setting. Maybe he’s a protecter type, maybe he’s just anxious, but he’s moving the story along. We know that Jess is perceptive, curious and introspective. We know that the flowers haven’t blossomed which makes us feel like the world that they inhabit has gone wrong. It goes from plot and setting to characterization and atmosphere and back to plot.
The reason why deviation coupled with dialect works as a means to express dialogue is that it’s how we naturally speak. We don’t necessarily write the way we talk– except for me and it’s weird to talk to me in person– but we should aim to come as close as we possibly can while still serving the purposes of dialogue. Dialect works because it grounds us to a particular lexicon and style. Deviation works because real life conversations often occur with both parties speaking around each other’s point (I hate to bring up Hills Like White Elephants again, but that’s the perfect example of this). How many times have you yourself brought up something entirely off topic in order to express your own interests? If you can find a way to instill that sentiment while preserving the alternative talking points (and excise the social obligations of “I’m sorry, this is off topic, but…”) while still sharing a conversation that explicates, characterizes, and reflects atmosphere, you might just make your piece feel a little bit more real. And a spoonful of realism makes the plot go down that much easier.