The Craft of Writing
Writing a Novel: The Importance of Dialogue and Narrative | wprnPublicRadio.com
by Randall “Jay” Andrews
First and foremost, dialogue tells the story, narration sets the mood!
When writing dialogue for a novel, you have to hold true to the principle that every word needs to move the story forward, which means that not every word spoken in real life makes good manuscript dialogue. It is also true that the central piece to a story is the dialogue, and everything else supports it, from exposition, narrative action, and bookisms.
We, as humans, meander when we talk. It’s our nature. We like to chit chat, we like to respond in nonsequiturs. All these are great when you are sitting across from someone, but it’s confusing for a piece of written work. Real people say random things, and unless you are developing a character as a flake, you would never have them utter random dialogue with no purpose. (If only I could get those around me to stop doing it!)
Likewise, we fight. The more we love, the more we fight, but often it’s not germane to the story and we need to narrow the focus of our dialogue to what advances the story.
Also, in a story, it’s best not to have a character go into long winded explanations that may or may not make sense, but the long winded part becomes the central issue. We speak in nonsensical terms and we often go into dissertations to get our point across. Dialogue in fictions is stunted, stunted because we get our point across and move on. Real life we might hammer the same point for twenty minutes, carry on with the weather, the shopping list, and maybe come back and hammer that point some more. As a reader, we get it, tell it to us and move on to the arc of the story. Real life you repeat yourself a lot because you either mumble, or the person you are speaking to doesn’t hear very well. That would get old very fast in a manuscript. Certain handicaps have to be navigated with greater ease than constant repeating. (Reminds me of the student who says the same thing over and over because the teacher said it had to be ten pages long.)
The above issue circles back to another human reaction, that of refusing to repeat yourself when someone says, “Huh?” You could actually do this in a manuscript; however, you have now led the reader to believe the person who said, “Huh,” doesn’t know what was said. You may not have intended that, and it may not be wise to not repeat it.
In real life, not everyone replies to your remarks, but in a manuscript it’s vital the reader knows the receiver got the message (that can be handled in thought).
People cuss. Depending on your audience, that may not be appropriate. People use nicknames, and they often change them moment by moment. That can be very confusing for the reader. A single nickname is usually the max you can get away with in writing.
People speak in tangents, again, not something you want your characters doing. One thing a story is not is real life. Real life has no arc. A story has an arc and we need to be traversing it. Along that same line, people lose sense of time. They may rattle on, and in a story, the protagonist may need to get somewhere and the cut off is so not like life. Most abrupt departures in a book lack the awkwardness of what really happens when we have to shut the person up. Those same people may be exaggerators and storytellers, and although they are certainly fun people to listen to, (once in awhile), they do not make good secondary characters in a story. They take up time needlessly.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in writing dialogue is ACCENTS. To write how people actually talk may get your book scrapped by a reader, or worse, by a publisher. It’s okay if the accent isn’t too pronounced, but if it is nearly indiscernible, you have to forego the accent and let the reader know he spoke in a thick Nigerian accent, use occasional words to keep the reader in, but let go of the word by word accent.
The point is, you have to modify your writing with regards to writing dialogue. You want it to be natural and it can, but you have to be cognizant that the dialogue can’t be true to life because life isn’t a true parallel to a story. One doesn’t have an arc and because of that is allowed to go nowhere. A story is taking us somewhere, and because of that, so is the dialogue.
A writer’s voice is “you” if you are the author. However, when “you” get in the way of the story, your voice becomes an irritation rather than a joy. Simply put, the stylistic mix of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax—put together in “your” presentation—is your voice, but since we are going to be dealing with you for the entire book, let’s not be overpowered by “you” when you narrate. Instead, be “you” with as soft a touch as possible.
The sin to “you” spending inordinate amounts of time between the reader and the characters is that it takes away the actors (characters) who are supposed to be the one’s telling the story. Writers seem to forget they can create any scene they want, and if that’s the case, use the tools of storytelling to help them. If you need a character to character conversation to explain things, MAKE THAT HAPPEN. Not everything you write will have an easy fix, and to keep the suspension of disbelief from burning you, you have to be willing to go back and repaint the room so you aren’t stuck in a corner.
Before you do that, think what else could deliver your dialogue (and there are many) and start keeping those on your cork board. The subtext of any arc is the mini arcs that characters take us on as they become multifaceted, and THERE is where all that information that is overkill in narration becomes storytelling in dialogue.