We’re here this morning for the continuation of the trial concerning the complexity of dialogue and what is necessary for its success in fiction, Will the parties state their appearances for the record, please.
ATTORNEY KRATZ: Good morning, your Honor, the State of Play is represented by D.A. Rosen Kratz.
ATTORNEY STERN: Good morning, Judge, Attorney Guild N. Stern appearing with The Third Man today.
All right. I believe, when we left yesterday, the State had completed it’s direct examination of Dialogue and the Defense will begin cross-examination today. Is the witness here?
ATTORNEY STERN: Yes, your Honor.
Good. Let’s begin.
Consider for a moment why we talk to one another. Unless you like to hear the sound of your voice (or you just regularly mutter about your red stapler), we typically only speak when we have something to say. We talk to one another to convey information or to persuade each other of something. Spoken language is a tool, so it better be used like one in writing.
Every time a character speaks, there should be a reason. They should have a purpose or a goal, even if it’s something simple like calming their nerves. Obviously, not every issue is a matter of life or death. However, if you can’t find a reason for a character to talk, they shouldn’t be talking. Dialogue should not function merely as a break between action sequences or as a device to provide verbal variety.
Objection! The Defense is providing no examples to support his suppositions.
Your Honor, I assume the evidence was self-evident. Any action movie would serve as a viable example—Taken, Transporter, or Rambo.
Objection! The Defense is arguing in generalities. There are multiple action movies that contain sustained dialogue.
In addition to the characters having a purpose in speaking, dialogue should also serve a purpose in the narrative. This is why dialogue is difficult: it serves two masters. Readers expect dialogue to reveal something—to unmask the Wizard of Oz. If the interchange between characters does not hasten the plot, or deepen the characterization, readers expect it to at least provide new information. You could argue that the sole purpose of dialogue is to provide narrative context.
Writers can provide world-building details in a more entertaining and witty fashion with dialogue. Is there some crucial piece of information that the audience needs to know? Convey it through dialogue! Need to reveal the dark past of the character? Dialogue! Need to explain why two groups of seemingly similar people are attempting to massacre one another! Dialogue! Need to explain how your complicated ship drive that defies the laws of physics? Dialogue!
Objection! We are arguing about the complexity of writing dialogue not the degree to which it serves as a miracle solution to all narrative ills.
Objection sustained. The Defense will focus on the argument at hand.
Yes, Your Honor.
Exposition dumps are boring. Any details that are necessary to understand the story, but are not part of the story, can be conveyed easily through dialogue. Dialogue takes dry facts and breaks them up into fun-sized bites of knowledge that are both addictive and easy to digest. Unfortunately, as with all aspects of dialogue, there is a complication: what if the characters know the details already and the readers don’t? Soldiers fighting in a war already know who they’re fighting against and why. So, how does the writer pass that knowledge naturally onto the reader?
In the Interest of Conflict
No one likes small talk. It exists to fill uncomfortable silences. You know you’ve found somebody special when you can both shut up for a minute and comfortably enjoy absolute silence. Unfortunately, as much as we hate small talk, you can’t cut it from fiction. Well, you can, but the absence calls attention to itself. Just like asking someone “How are you doing today?” after saying “Hello,” your characters are obligated to periodically exchange pointless pleasantries to give your narrative a sense of authenticity.
You need a little filler and such meatless moments are good for expressing what the characters already know, but the readers do not. It’s expected that inconsequential and mundane details of existence appear in small talk. We all know the weather is nice today and the sky is blue, but we’ll state those facts anyway to fill the void. Having parents talking about their children and the single man/woman talking about their love interest or pet makes whatever world you create seem plausible.
Objection! The Defense is arguing that single men/women must have a love interest or a pet to be realistically rendered in fiction.
Your Honor, I am merely providing clear examples as the Prosecution requested. These are not character requirements, but common and potential discussion topics.
Objection overruled. Please continue.
Yes, Your Honor.
Nevertheless, a novel filled with too much small talk is a dull read. So too is dialogue without conflict. Friction between characters sharpens the narrative and gives conversations flavor. This is not to say outright fights are necessary for a good story, but smaller-scale skirmishes and disagreements are expected. After all, fully-realized characters will have unique desires and aspirations. Since no two individuals share the same goals, they will inevitably come into conflict if they are intent on achieving those goals.
Conflict is the driving force behind most narratives. From fables to trilogies on the Sprawl—discord, strife, dissension, and [insert analogy for conflict] make narratives interesting. Where would Harry be without He Who Shall Not Be Named? He’d be just an average wizard with a happy family life—hardly the stuff of magical drama! Of course, that’s a bit hyperbolic. Not everyone is a powerful Dark Lord or even an Overlord. Just consider where Harry would be without Draco Malfoy. Or where would I be with out my counterpart attempting to block my every argument?
Objection, Your Honor! The Defense is deliberately attempting to bait the Prosecution. Our interactions have no merit on this case!
I was merely providing a relatable example for the benefit of the jury, Your Honor. I did not mean to imply that there was a direct connection.
Objection sustained. The Defense will refrain from referencing the Prosecution in future discourse or they will be held in contempt of the court. Is that understood?
Yes, Your Honor.
Then, please proceed.
Subtlety and Subtexts
Now, not all battles are fought out in the open at midday. In fact, most are carried on in the dark and away from prying eyes. However cliché, subterfuge and subversion are common plot ploys. In narratives that rely on them, more is left unsaid than said. and the reader is left to tease out the truth before its unmasked at the end with a Scooby Snack and a curse for the meddlesome children.
Ultimately, a little subtly and subtext within discussion can make even the dullest topics interesting. Of course, that’s if the writer can overcome the complexities of crafting it. If the subtext is too overt, the reader will not believe the characters didn’t see it. If it’s too subtle, the reader will not recognize it even at the end. In either case, they will consider the mystery flawed or incomplete. The thrill of discovery will be replaced by the bitterness of disappointment.
Moreover, there are cliché subtexts—themes so trite that they kill any interest. For example, a women wanting adventure and the man wanting to keep the routine. It was unique when Ibsen wrote it in 1879, but not today. Unless your goal is write a stale romance plot, you need to craft something a bit more demanding and unique. Characters must be driven by more than discontent, and most readers enjoy unraveling the complex weaving of subtle jabs and thrusts.
If characters are keeping their desires and goals to themselves, they must feel whomever their talking to would significantly hinder them. People are very good at stating their opinions, so there needs to be an equally good reason to keep them silent. Even more so, if the characters would otherwise agree or are on friendly terms. Those reasons may be based on misunderstandings, but they are threatening enough to give the character pause.
Now, pauses and breaks are important. The caesura is key to these melodious plots. A character’s hesitation, or outright refusal to speak, is like an alarm going off for the reader—it indicates something is hidden there in the deep. Moreover, the short breaths in between the action are where dialogue goes. With the authors discretion, each of these momentary lulls reveals another clue or bit of information. They reveal, albeit quickly, the underlying tensions that exist.
A Word to the Grammar Nazi
Don’t expect perfect prose, you ain’t gonna get it. Humans have accents, slang, dialects, and creole. We speak multiple languages. We mix and match. If you go 100 miles in any direction, life, language, and culture changes—sometimes drastically. So, why would you imagine it to be any different in a novel?
Novelists are attempting to maintain some realism, even if the content is absurd. Read Mark Twain or Toni Morrison and you’ll see it—an attempt to record the sounds and the words. You won’t find the Queen’s English there because the there of the novel is not Buckingham Palace. Even Harvard Graduates have a certain style and they’re usually a well educated bunch. If the narrative is in Boston, the characters better speak Bostonian. If they live in Minnesota, they better speak Minnesotan don’t cha know?
If you’re trying to record the way something is spoken, grammar goes out the window. If you like precisely punctuated sentences, you’re going to have to get over your aversion to the jumbled garble that is human language. You have to accept the warmth of that dumpster fire and document its crackles and sputters.
ATTORNEY STERN: I rest my case, Your Honor.
All right. That concludes the defenses presentation. Does the State have any remarks they wish to make?
ATTORNEY KRATZ: No, Your Honor. Not at the present time.
Jury, you are dismissed for the evening. We will reconvene tomorrow for closing remarks. Court adjourned.