The problem with dialogue is its artificiality. Granted, all fiction is artificial in the sense that it is crafted by humans (Oh, how I wish it grew on trees though!), but I am not speaking of the artifice of the creation. I am not Plato. This is not a meditation on the Theory of Forms (although it deals with the simulacra of speech, so consider yourself warned).
Description vs. Dialogue
Physical objects are easily describable and quickly visualized often with minimal misunderstanding by the reader. This is true regardless of the method used to describe them: top to bottom, left to right, foreground to background, or massive parallel array of geometric planes (All Hail Cubism!).
Objection! My learned friend is willfully dismissing the skill of artists who put significant effort into word building by insinuating that word choice and structure are meaningless!
Your Honor, I am not suggesting that description is easy. I am arguing that it is merely easier than dialogue. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the careful craftsmanship of writers such as George Eliot, Daniel Defoe, Robert Jordan, and Patrick Rothfuss.
Now, not only are there a variety of means available, but variety is expected both for interest and difference. A writer describing a boat and a face in the same way shows a lack of thought, a weakness in writing, or both.
Moreover, we quickly accept the reality presented by the narrator’s description (unless they appear suspicious). Likewise, we accept the reality of a character’s vision, also constructed by the writer, of material space. For instance, take the following example:
“Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.”
There is no difficulty in parsing the description, nor does anyone reading this text question the accuracy of the description (until the moment I questioned it). We accept that the place exists in its fictional world and it is described fairly accurately. No one stops to think: “Is the character describing a real place in their world?” No one questions the construction within the construction, nor do they have difficulty visualizing it using the information provided.
Encapsulating an object in an abstraction layer of words is simple and, more importantly, fluid. Just like a river, multiple paths lead to the same conclusion. Let me represent the view above in less poetic form:
“Red drapes cut my view of the winter storm in half, but I could see a sliver of the wet November day through the window panes on the left. While reading my book, I occasionally looked up and took in the view. A blanket of mist and clouds moved across the far horizon while the storm beat the landscape with ceaseless rain and raging winds.”
While this description is not nearly so neatly worded as the first, it still provides a similar description of the scene. The reader should have no difficulty visualizing it. This is the how summarizing functions after all.
However, dialogue is another matter entirely. Verbal communication is already an abstraction, so putting speech into written form makes it a second order abstraction. Mistakes are more apparent and easier to make. We communicate verbally all the time, so we spot linguistic faults instantly (even if language is a glacier). You can tell a foreigner not by the words they use, but the way they use the words. The lack of common slang, or the slightest mispronunciation of a syllable, indicate that the person is an “Other” to our to well-trained ear.
With written dialogue a reader can tell when something is amiss. They know when something sounds inauthentic or incomplete and quickly label it melodramatic, awkward, unpleasant, grating, or even cheesy. How does the reader come to that conclusion so easily? Simple: they have an understanding of the fictional world from which the dialogue originates based on the constructed observation of it by the narrator or protagonist. Dialogue has to seem plausible within the presented construction. A digression in the comedic quality of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor would seem awkward in the middle of the Battle of Astarte.
Context??? Context!!! Context…
If the dialogue stood alone, there would be no point of reference and no questioning the conversation between characters. Take the following example:
You obviously have no concept of Jeans.
I just don’t see what’s wrong with those. They look fine on you.
As if! They’re too heavy. I mean look at how thick they are!
But thick is good! They’ll last longer that way.
No, I don’t want Walmart jeans, I need light and subtle, these are so rough it’s like burlap! I need Brazilian jeans. Well perhaps not that thin. I don’t want others to see my crotch.
What does Brazil have to do with anything?!? You said the best jeans are the ones made in Japan. The ones they make there are thick.
No they’re the best because they use specially formulated cotton and weave, not to mention the special permanent dye that doesn’t fade.
Well I can’t speak for the dye, they are high tech, but there are only two kinds of cotton in the world and jeans everywhere have the same weave, their jeans!
The Japanese only use the best cotton they can find, not the average riffraff you find in your Levi’s. And look at this uneven stitching! I almost want to cry knowing some child in China was doing this.
Ok, well I’ll grant you that, the stitching is a bit overt color wise.
Doesn’t matter. And don’t tell me you’re not picky either, we had to hunt through four stores last time you needed a pair.
I don’t get mine because of their weight! They just have to fit right and last a long time. Quality is a little more important than thickness and it’s hard to find.
Whatever. You just don’t understand! You’re just not a Jean Connoisseur.
There exists no connection between the dialogue and the surroundings, so the dialogue stands alone. However, once the context for a conversation has been established, the dialogue is quickly judged as accurate or false. Take this example for instance:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
The nineteenth century, genteel setting put forth in the first few lines establishes a line of credibility for the reader. They judge the following conversation solely on the grounds of the context provided.
Objection! Jane Austen is not the best example. She has been accused of sounding artificial on multiple occasions.
Your Honor, I contend that makes the evidence more valid! Her difficulty maintaining credible conversations proves my point that dialogue is inherently problematic for the writer.
A Building Without Blueprints
Now consider this: How does the writer feel when constructing dialogue? They have no context in which to base their dialogue and assess its accuracy. They have a quasi-defined, nebulous idea, but nothing concrete since the composition has yet to be completed. The context, then, is ambiguous and imprecise. So, the dialogue, no matter what the writer actually writes, will always seem artificial and not quite “right.” The dialogue will never be accurate since the context is partially undefined.
Nevertheless, readers expect the writer to make sure the dialogue matches the context and is believable. Imagine the difficulty of the task! A writer must put aside their nagging desire to correct the dialogue or remove it entirely because of the mismatch to a non-existent and indefinite thing. How much harder is it for them considering the fact that are well aware of the deficits in their dialogue and they have the omnipotent power to correct the issue!
Of course, their own creativity often hinders them further. As they write their 19th century historical romance they decide to pair it with a 21st century romance taking place in a dorm room on the 4th floor of a liberal arts college! Now they must juggle two separate contexts in which any dialogue takes place and worry about slippage.
Perhaps it is easier to write a fantasy. A fantasy has no definitive context unless created, since it is a wholly imagined creation and can be adjusted as it progresses. A reader will not be critical if the dialogue does not fit because they do not have any idea how elves interact, or dwarves communicate.
Objection! The dialogue defines the fantasy context for the reader, so the writer must be doubly sure that the dialogue accurately projects the present and future context.
But your Honor, such a situation would double writing complexity and leave the writer in a hopeless spiral without defined endings. It’s absurd! No fantasy would ever be completed.
No, they would just need additional volumes and time. Think of George R.R. Martin, or J.K. Rowling, or [insert another fantasy author of your choice]!
Objection sustained. Jury, you are dismissed for the evening. We will reconvene this case at a later time to further consider the issue at hand. Court adjourned.