“Jump,” he shouted precipitously

I like dialog.  I like to write it and even, in moderation, to read it.  Mind you, reading a script is by no means the same thing as wallowing in a good hunk of novel chat.  As a student, I did time with Renaissance drama (and medieval and Restoration and Georgian), but I didn’t learn the difference between theatrical and narrative speech until I got around to writing dialog for my novels.

In a play script, dialog bears most of the burden of story-telling, with radio scripts closer to theater than film scripts are.  The ideal film is silent with the camera doing the work of narrative; at least that’s the theory.  I’m not sure I buy it.  Plenty of visually satisfying movies are ruined by clunky dialog, but it’s true that films are less dependent on speech than plays are.

In narrative fiction, dialog is optional.  So why use it?  For me, the answer is voices.  When the novel was a new form, one of its peculiarities was that it could be read silently, though families continued to read fiction aloud as a form of entertainment well into the nineteenth century–as good parents still do to their young children.  I don’t think the person reading fiction aloud has to use a bunch of difference voices so long as it’s clear which character is supposed to be speaking.  The reader simply puts on the narrative persona and speaks in that voice.

When I’m working up to writing a novel, a sign that I’m ready to start is that my characters speak to each other.  I don’t always use that initial dialog as the beginning of the book, but it feels like the beginning to me.  That raises a question.  I “hear” what I write and what I read.  Does everyone?  Maybe I’m just schizophrenic.  A friend assured me that he never hears voices in his head, but I have my doubts.  He’s a musician.  He hears what his violin is supposed to be playing.  I think he hears voices too.  Script writers almost certainly do.

Two problems story-tellers stumble over when they incorporate dialog into their tales are redundancy and the soliloquy.  The author narrates an event–the discovery of a body, for example–and then follows with a scene that shows major characters receiving news of the discovery.  This can be wonderfully tedious to readers, but writers often don’t notice because they’re focused on dramatizing reception of the news and not on the news itself.  The messenger’s speech can all too easily turn into a page-long paragraph with other characters in the scene going “woo-woo” or “woe-woe” like a Greek chorus.

A soliloquy can slide from natural talk to oratory.  High-flown rhetoric fits into drama, especially tragedy, and into epic narrative easily enough, but the novel is domestic and comic, at least in its origins–people talking, not people speechifying, dialog not monolog.

And why not a triolog?  It’s interesting how seldom fiction writers create a scene with more than two major speakers.  There are plenty of occasions in daily life with multiple speakers–a staff meeting, a rally, a banquet, a funeral.  Even the classic restaurant dinner between two lovers comes across livelier if the waiter horns in.  “And that brings up the problem of speech tags,” she said breathlessly.

I was provoked into thinking about dialog as the topic for this blog by reading a mystery whose author mucked up the speech identifiers two ways.  He or she left unattributed pronouns scattered all over the page.  He said, he said, he said.  He he he.  And he (or she) committed Tom Swiftlies not once or twice in a chapter, which might be forgiven, but two or three times per page in scenes with dialog.  Though the book had a good plot and an unusual setting, and touched on ideas worth brooding about, in the end it was unreadable.  She said severely.

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2 Responses

  1. Elmore Leonard said, “All the information you need can be given in dialogue.” I’m not sure that’s true, but I prefer reading novels in which dialogue carries the story. I think the worst example of a bad dialogue tag I’ve ever seen was this one: “You’re very perspicacious,” she snapped. I defy you to snap the word perspicacious. You might spray it, but you can’t snap it.

  2. Funny!

    But I too like reading dialog(ue), and I like writing it. It’s a much faster and much more interesting way to get inside the head of a character than any amount of description, whether you’re reading or writing.

    As for tags, you often can substitute actions that make it clear who’s speaking while helping nail down what else is going on in the scene. It’s particularly useful in those scenes that involve more than just a couple of people. And it helps me fight my tendency to let my characters float in space.

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