Dialogue? he asked.
Writing Craft
Scott Stoops  

“Dialogue?” he asked.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Dialogue?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure I had time for this conversation, but my companion seemed eager to grill me. We had already discussed a handful of things related to writing, and my stories in particular. I was working on a major rewrite of Devil’s Advocate, a short story that I wrote a couple of years ago. The story portrayed a conversation between the protagonist, Mitchell, and an antagonist, only referred to as “the man” and tries to show the conversations we sometimes have with ourselves.

“I remember that story. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, and you had nothing better to do.” he said.

I ignored his comment.

“Mitchell had way too much internal monologue for my tastes.” he said.

“That was the point. I wanted to show a character working through some challenging situations. The character called Man was really a foil for Mitchell.”

“Then you turned it into a play.”

And now I’m rewriting at as a short story again. The circle of life. “You asked me about dialogue a moment ago. What do you see happening here?” I asked.

My companion paused a moment, looked back over things, and then shrugged his shoulders.

“How does this dialogue sound to you? Does it lure you in to the story?”

He looked again. “Now that you mention it, it doesn’t. It seems kind of flat.”

“Why do you suppose that is?”

“One of us makes a statement or asks a question and the other answers. Kind of boring.”

“I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dialogue as description

Our dialogue wasn’t accomplishing anything besides putting meaningless words on the page. It revealed nothing about either of us. All we have so far are two cardboard cut-out talking heads. Who are we? What are we like?

“You know, you remind me of a boring and nondescript version of the antagonist from Devil’s Advocate.” I said.

“What? Wait a minute, pal. I am anything but boring and nondescript. Look at me. I’m young, definitely younger than you. Good looking with slightly graying hair. Ruggedly handsome. Above average intelligence. You, however, are old. That mane of yours makes you look like a wannabe hippie.”

“What do either of the characters in Devil’s Advocate look like? Or consider a book like The Great Gatsby. What does Jay Gatsby look like? Or Nick Carraway?”

My companion thought again and then shrugged. “The physical description doesn’t seem to matter a lot.”

“Physical descriptions can play an important role in showing who a character is as long as they add to the story. If you have a hunchback and that is integral to your story, then mention it. Keep in mind, we rarely describe things that are commonplace for us.”

“Why?” he asked.

“We don’t notice them.”

“But we notice the things that are out of the ordinary.”

“And our characters talk about things that are important to them in the story.” I added. “The details, though, need to be important to the story. You having a hunchback is irrelevant unless that deformity helps to drive the story or develop the character.”

Dialogue as character exposition

In Devil’s Advocate, we saw Mitchell’s thoughts because I wrote the story in a third-person limited viewpoint. Rather than explaining it to my companion, I texted him a link to the article “Complete Guide to Different Types of Point of View: Examples of Point of View in Writing”

“Some of the tension in that version came from Mitchell’s interior monologue. Man had a more omniscient view of things and often knew what Mitchell was thinking. When I rewrote it as a short one act play, I had to take those monologues and turn them into dialogues. That changed their nature and the dynamic between the two characters.”

“It would be hard hearing someone on stage thinking,” my companion said.

Stating the obvious, I thought.

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

I saw us slipping back into the question-and-answer format. “Between monologue and dialogue?”

“Just because I’m not an aspiring writer like you are doesn’t mean I don’t know these things.”

I wanted to say, “Then why did you ask?” but thought better of it.

“Thus ‘mono-‘ and ‘dia-‘,” he said.

I could tell from the look on his face that he thought I was being condescending.

“I see what you did. Very cute,” he said. “In one paragraph, you wrote my response to our dialogue and your thoughts about me.”

“And revealed something about me as well. You’ve heard the expression, ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say?’ Few of us do in real life. We might say that we get ‘straight to the point’, but most of our communication wanders all over the place and is filled with all kinds of fillers.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

“Dialogue works the least well when it’s telling you what’s going on.”

Tom Rickman

“And pointless interjections for agreement. You really learn little about a person based upon conversations unless you sift through all the fluff. As writers, we need to get rid of the fluff and use dialogue and action to convey something about who this person is, what he wants, and what is standing in the way.”

Pacing and tension

“Actual conversations have a lot of fluff to them. We use filler words and phrases such as ‘umm’, ‘uh huh’, ‘you know’, and general phrases like, ‘Fine weather we are having today’. One thing we don’t do, at least not frequently, is use long run-on sentences that go on and on interminably, boring our friends until they either fall asleep or run away screaming.”

“Like you just did!” my companion said.

“You caught that. Good.”

“Yes, but what if one character has a lot to say? What if it’s important?”

“Keep it short and keep it short.”

“What?”

“Long paragraphs slow the pace down and that lowers the tension.”

“I get that. You said, ‘keep it short and keep it short’.”

“Gotcha. Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences short. Especially when you want to build tension. The converse is true, as well. Make your paragraphs and your sentences long if you want to decrease the tension. Some authors have used run-on sentences effectively.”

“Then why did you make the statement if you were just going to contradict yourself?”

What kind of mood are you in?”

“Because dialogue in stories serves at least two purposes: advance the story, and tell us something about the characters. We also use dialogue to set the tone.”

“No, ‘It was a dark and gloomy’ night?”

“Too clichéd.”

“So we convey mood through what our characters say or don’t say,” my companion said.

We? When did you decide to be a writer? “And no ‘he bellowed’, ‘she whimpered”, ‘he said nonchalantly’.”

“What? I thought things like that helped to convey the mood!”

“Convey it by what the characters actually say. There’s related advice for verbs: if you have to use an adverb to describe an action, then find a stronger verb.”

“But ‘I’m furious,’ she whimpered isn’t the same as ‘I’m furious,’ she bellowed or even just ‘said’.”

“There’s always a tradeoff. No writing ‘rule’ can address every situation.” I said. “Sometimes the dialogue can’t communicate clearly what the character is feeling. Your examples convey two unique interpretations of ‘I’m furious.’ because of the different dialogue tags you used. Use tags to enhance or clarify the tone if you can’t do it any other way. But do it intentionally and judiciously.”

My companion nodded. It was a good time to end the conversation and get back to work. “If you have any more questions,” I said.

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1 Comment

  1. […] told me. “What does Point of View mean?” Emboldened by our earlier conversation about dialogue, he decided he was going to write stories. He approached me with a notebook in which he had […]

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