This, unlike women, is something I do know how to write. Yet it’s a thing that many writers find difficult. Because…
Well, because dialogue isn’t conversation. It just seems to be. And we want the reader to think it is. And it should, ideally, read like conversation. Only it’s not.
If you think about real conversation, 9/10’s of it is utter drivel.
Listen to yourself down the pub some evening or in the shops or at the stable. What’s being said is of absolutely no use to anyone except the friends or acquaintances involved–and possibly not even to them.
It’s half-sentences and phrases, expressions, interruptions, and yes, drivel, which mainly relies on acquaintance, shared experience and jokes, and a hundred different other personal things which would be of no interest to anyone outside that immediate circle of friends.
But think of a novel as a cake.
Yes, a cake. (This is not, you will understand, an intimation that I know how to cook, or anything…)
With all the ingredients being essential componants to the mixture, flavour, colour, texture and cakey ability to rise and hold together. So one has the butter, eggs, rising agent, flour, perhaps cocoa or spices or fruit. And once you’ve mixed it all together and put it into the oven, it forms a unique mass of its own, and not one of those ingredients can then be separated out. Neither will it taste right or hold together without all the ingredients in their proper amounts.
Well, so it is with dialogue.
It’s not just me and a mate down the pub shooting the breeze about a great run we had with the horses on Sunday. Or your Aunt Mildred on the phone with her chum Persephone Fulbright discussing the shocking news that the greengrocer will no longer sell her half-cucumbers.
For dialogue, within the context of the novel, has a purpose or even many purposes–all disguised as normal conversation.
It may look like piffle and stable or bar chat, but it should be informing the reader about character, about the speaker’s character perhaps, about his or her relationship to the listener. It might also be a means of imparting information about any number of things, plot points even. It may be the means of demonstrating the development of a relationship at the heart of the novel.
But the thing is, it must contribute to the fabric–or cakey structure, if you prefer–of the novel in some way. Or it doesn’t belong there.
There is no one in the world so brilliant with dialogue as Shakespeare in his plays. Obviously, as it’s plays he wrote, he had little else to rely on besides dialogue with which to impart action, character, mood, character transformation and all that.
But take for instance his genius work, Henry IV, Part I. (I cannot recommend reading and analysing this play highly enough.) For in this play, he delineates character, rank, intellect, emotional relationships, everything, through speech.
In order to create the driven character of Hotspur, he writes most of that character’s dialogue using a limited Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. His words are short or monosyllabic, easily understood and to the point, never flowery. Occasionally, Shakespeare even slips in some dactyls–a metrical foot comprised of syllables or accented words thus: long, short, short–to give the thing added drive.
So take Hotspur’s famous speech in Act II, scene iii: “What lack-brain is this?…our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our friends true and constant: a good plot, good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends…”
No one can read or act that and not find their speech speeding up, conveying the indomitable dynamism of the character. No one. So you know everything about this character–that he’s first and foremost a soldier and a man of action (and perhaps less brain)–because of the words Shakespeare puts in Hotspur’s mouth. And that’s just genius!
Of course, one of the dangers is that dialogue is frequently used as a means of imparting information to the reader. This is one that’s particularly tricky for writers of historical fiction. It’s the ‘how do I bring the reader up to speed on the politics or military situation’ problem without resorting to an information-dump.
But this is a place to be especially wary, because people living through a situation rarely indulge in a ‘let me bring you up to speed in every detail’ conversation with their friends.
For example, no one has to tell me that there’s an election coming in this country, that it must be held by 6th June, that the serving Prime Minister was not elected and so on–because I know all that. I’m living here.
So when and if you do go to impart information, test it, would you give that much background detail to a contemporary who knows the situation almost as well as you do, or at least knows all the prime players in the situation and what they look like and where they live? Would you use the chappy’s full name and talk about how he’s wearing his hair and who his mother is? And would your friend listen with interest?
Or tell you to shut up because you’re getting weird?
One final point. No two individuals talk alike. Each of us has different word preferences and choices, different idioms, slightly different syntax, and our own ways of phrasing a question or even using expletives as modifiers.
There may be huge similarities within a family; they may use the same expressions and slang; friends or peer groups may also sound very similar. But there will, even within those close relationships, be subtle differences.
Listen for those. Use those in your work to delineate character and mood, intellect even. Because it’s those kind of subtleties which really raise character-writing and dialogue to an artform, giving each character their own voice.
And finally, read it all aloud. If it doesn’t fall naturally out of your mouth, it won’t be believable coming out of your character’s mouth either.
And if you need an oxygen mask at the end of every sentence, you’ll know that your sentences are far too long for dialogue…and people don’t talk like that. Unless they’re teenage girls, of course. Ha ha ha.