Dude, it’s like, you know, the way they talk

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about writing dialogue and offers hints and tips for effective use

It seems there are two types of beginning writers: those who are afraid of dialog, and those who think they are great at writing dialog. Neither is completely without merit, and neither is completely wrong.

Writers who are afraid to write dialog, think that dialog is some sort of mystical feature of fiction, and are afraid that they will not get it exactly correct. Those beginners who think they are great at writing dialog, typically think writing dialog is just typing what people say, and they tend to overcompensate for weak description, or for a struggling plot.

Obviously, I am just making this stuff up, and I have not conducted extensive studies on the subject, but lets take the earlier descriptions as a point of departure.

When properly handled, dialog can do the following:

  • Reveal character
  • Advance the plot
  • Provide backstory
  • Control pacing

First I want to begin with using dialog to reveal character. The choice of words, the way a person talks use of slang, or proper grammar all help to reveal things about a character. For example, if a character uses profanity, or not, might inform readers a bit about the character. Does the character reveal bigotry in his or her word choice? Is the chracter excitable, or calm? All of these types of things can appear on display via dialog.

There are many ways to advance the plot via dialog. Two characters can make plans via dialog, they can confront bad guys, question suspects, learn of conspiracies, and all sorts of other things all via dialog.

Revealing backstory via dialog is something that calls for the utmost attention from the writer. Otherwise the story ends up sounding like a cheap cartoon. Pay close attention to “as you know Bob” kinds of things. For example, “As you know Bob, when you broke your leg skiing last summer, the Doctor told you to avoid stressing your knees or you could end up crippled for life. If you enter the pole vault, you might never walk again.”

This can be re-cast and still achieve the same effect.

“Pole vault? Are you stupid. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking how impressed Cindy will be when I bring home the medal.”

“Yeah, and will Cindy go to the dance with you when you are in a wheel chair?”

“Why don’t you take her skiing while you are at it. Only don’t come crying to me when you can’t walk anymore.”

Description slows things down, but snappy dialog speeds things up. Here is an example of how description slows stuff down.

Bob looked around the room. It was large and sparsely decorated. On the opposite side of the room, stood Charlie. Charlie was a mountain of a man, with a full beard, and long stringy hair. He was munching on something that reminded Bob of rotten fish. Perhaps it was, Charlie was not known as a gourmand. In fact, it was widely known that Charlie had the culinary discretion of a wild dog.

So the story stops while we get the description of an uncouth man standing alone in a large room. It does not advance the plot, it does however slow down the pacing. This may be needed, or not. If I want to speed things alone, show characterization, and maybe even advance the plot, I can use dialog.

Bob crossed the large room, “Damn Charlie, what are you eating?”

Charlie stoked his long black beard, “Sardines. I have a date tonight, and I am in training.”

Bob watched while the large man shook his long greasy tangled hair like a rutting musk ox.

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