In our blog-swap, Annie and I have spoken back and forth about dialogue as something that has to contribute to the story. As obvious as that seems, it’s amazing how often truly good writers stumble through conversations like salmon battering their way up rapids. What’s particularly damaging is the forced marriage of narrative and dialogue. How often have you read something like this?
Bill’s face turned fiery red. His eyes bulged and a muscle twitched in his jaw. “Now you’ve made me angry…,”
Say again? Unless Bill was just swigging Tabasco from the bottle, what else could he be but angry? In short, if you’ve described a character’s appearance well enough to tip off your reader to his/her emotional state, why clog your pace with pointless dialogue that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know? You’ve done a good job setting up a powerful scene, then stepped on it. As authors, we should be constantly asking ourselves how to direct dialogue so it contributes to the total story. In the above situation, if Bill’s dialogue is on the order of “You know I hate it when you do that…” your reader knows the characters (A) have a history, (B) the history has points of abrasion, and (C) this particular event isn’t unique. Instead of revealing something in narrative, only to repeat the information in dialogue, you’ve broadened the reader’s knowledge of the characters and their relationship. More than that, by exposing that one small facet of their relationship, you’ve opened up a warehouse full of possible actions, reactions, and resulting tensions.
And there’s that magic word again: TENSION. If tension is the engine that drives a novel (full disclosure; I’m a believer), then the interaction between the characters is the fuel. I just finished Hallie Ephron‘s latest, There Was An Old Woman. I suppose it’s women’s fiction. I don’t care. I read what I choose and my criteria are a reasonable premise and the craftsmanship that assures a good read. Ms. Ephron supplies. I’m mentioning it here because her use of dialogue to further the story is outstanding. Her primary characters are two sisters and two elderly women still living in the neighborhood where the sisters grew up. It’s a suspenseful novel and the dialogue (internal as well as interpersonal) rings like silver. Every thought, every reminiscence, every exchange leads us further into the snare waiting for the victims. No car chases, no bombs hidden in the toilet, no dark figures scurrying about. But there’s dialogue. Each bit of it tightens the tension. What I found especially well done was the internal dialogue. Ms. Ephron’s characters provided story narrative in individual voices and they never broke form. That’s a pretty nifty trick.
When you review your own work on your way to that perfect final draft, be sure you ask yourself if there’s a craftsman’s edge to your dialogue. What’s said is important; what’s necessary is that it’s said with effect.
I’m putting There Was An Old Woman on my reading list. Great post, Don.