In this high-wire act of derring-do and ersatz dialogue, senior editor Kathy Pories and executive editor Chuck Adams discuss one of the most challenging aspects of craft.
Kathy: “Nice weather we’re having. Aren’t you sick of this rain?”
Chuck: “I don’t know. I think it’s better than all the heat we usually have. Don’t you just hate all the humidity, and the way it makes your hair frizz? It’s enough to keep me indoors all day. The rain, I mean.”
Kathy: “I know!”
Chuck: “Right! It just gets to be too much sometimes.”
Kathy: “Oh, sorry, were you still talking to me? I just walked away.”
Or actually, I didn’t, but if I was reading this, I’d put the book down and walk away. No offense! The thing about dialogue in books is that it doesn’t mimic how we speak in real life (thank god).
Chuck: No, as we just proved, real-life dialogue is b-o-r-i-n-g.
When writing for readers who expect to be entertained—and I feel this applies to non-fiction as well as fiction—it has to be about the pacing as well as the content, and in writing dialogue you should aim for what I call a heightened reality—basically, making it feel real by using words that would show up in normal conversation, but avoiding all the inanities, and yes, niceties of everyday exchanges, as well as all the, ahem, pauses. Keep it real, but make it interesting.
Kathy: I agree with Chuck. Another way of thinking about dialogue is that it should either reveal something about character, or move the action forward. You can pretty much jettison anything else.
Here’s a great example, from Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories:
“Let’s just go out there right now and tell her, in front of him,” Lizbet said. She and I were in the kitchen, preparing the trifle, and Kitty was back at the table, tucked up against Ray.
“Don’t tell her now,” I said. “Don’t tell her in the middle of the dinner.”
“This party is like a torture chamber for her.”
I agreed with Lizbet that Kitty needed to know, but I couldn’t bear for her to be told right now. “Some women don’t want to know,” I said. “Who knows what sort of arrangement they have?”
“I’m pretty sure they have a normal arrangement along the lines of not sleeping with other people.”
Note that this exchange seems entirely casual, yet we learn so much about both characters by what they say. And at the same time, it moves the story forward.
And though it can be hard to edit your own work, I recommend that you be really tough on your dialogue. A writer once told me that he can usually cut the first three exchanges in a dialogue and he will find that, then, he’s arrived at the meat. Why be so tough? Because for me, not only is bad dialogue boring, it’s also a signpost that the writer is not fully in control of the story; it tends to undermine my faith in what I’m reading.
Chuck: There are times, of course, when you might want to create intentionally bad or awkward dialogue, as when making the point that a character is perhaps not too bright, or is focused on the minutiae of life and is blind to the issues of the larger world.
In fact, dialogue is perhaps the best way to establish a character in the reader’s mind, to set the tone for the way that character will act and interact throughout the rest of the story.
Kathy: Every character speaks, or should speak, differently. You can let certain verbal patterns inform certain characters to help differentiate them, if you like (terse answers vs long and rambling answers, for example). Just remember that what you’re really after is making sure that they sound like their own person, not a reflection of the author, and of course, they should not sound like the narrator. This may seem like an obvious point, but I think it’s an easy one to forget as you’re revising.
One of my favorite parts of Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life is that there is one character who constantly recites famous quotes (he’s trying to buoy up a group of people in a bomb shelter), but he always gets the quote slightly wrong. And so the protagonist is constantly, silently, correcting him. Just through that exchange, we know so much about both of them.
Chuck: How much dialogue a writer uses is always an individual choice. I know that as a reader, I like dialogue because—to take it to the most basic level—it makes the page ahead look easier to read, and sometimes comes as a great relief after a long section of narrative action or description. Be careful, though, not to use dialogue to convey too much information. In fact, that is probably one of the most common mistakes we see in beginning writers, a tendency to let a character “tell” his or her companions something that would be better delivered in an actual scene. For example: “Do you remember the time we were in the city, and you walked under a crane just as it dropped the metal plate it was lifting, and it hit the pavement only feet away from you? Gosh, that was scary!”
Of course, none of you is going to make that basic a mistake, but you’d be surprised just how unskilled many really smart people are when it comes to trying to render realistic but also “novelistic” dialogue. As for how much dialogue to use, try to consider each scene and how best to convey what is important in it. If it is an action scene, then naturally it’s probably best to show the action and let the dialogue comment on it. But if it’s an emotional moment in your narrative, try to let the dialogue carry and convey that emotion without telling the reader what the characters are feeling.
As an example of dialogue carried too far, you might want to take a look at one of the great Philip Roth’s lesser novels, Deception, written almost entirely in dialogue, without the use of the usual “he said/she said” format. Most readers, including me, and I was theoretically an editor on the novel, could not keep up with who was talking, when. And that takes me back to what Kathy was saying when she so wisely pointed out the need to write character-distinct dialogue, with each character having his or her own “voice.” If you can do that successfully, you can avoid the constant use of “he said” or “Mary said,” etc., and you can also avoid the confusion that arises when it is not done properly.
Kathy: What Chuck said.
Oh, one final thing that always trips us up: Please, be sure to use a “speakable” verb, and NOT something like, “I’m so sick of writing about dialogue,” she shrugged. It just doesn’t work, and so it gets the editor all twitchy.
“Do you agree, Chuck?” she quizzed.
Chuck: “Yes,” he said.
And my final comment on the subject is that I always prefer “said” over any other “speakable” verb. Of course, it’s fine to write something like “Why?” she asked. But why bother with the question mark if you’re going to repeat it with a word?
Kathy: I also prefer a good old “said.” It’s a great word because it’s almost invisible, which means that I don’t have to think about it, which means that I can concentrate on what is actually being said. (That sentence needs an editor. Excuse me while I go see if I can find one around here.)
*The lovely and talented Kathy Pories has an impressive collection of gigantic office supplies. Regrettably, Chuck Adams, though just as delightful and talented, does not.