Writing Lesson #11—Dialogue, Part II: Ways to present dialogue.

Now that you've got your characters sounding like themselves—reflecting their backgrounds, educational level and attitudes—how much, how often, and in what way(s) will you present their dialogue to your readers?

One of the many reasons that fiction can be more enjoyable than real life is its ability to skip the boring parts. Even in conversations we enjoy, and think of as scintillating, there's generally a portion that's "filler." Before getting to the point, people do a verbal social dance in which the content is often close to irrelevant. The purpose of the small talk is to reassure others that we care about him.

Suppose Jim invites Ralph to lunch at a fine restaurant because he wants to ask his old friend for a large loan. Before Jim hits up on Ralph, he's apt to talk about anything but his need for cash. Typically, this other talk will occupy almost all their time together. In real life, this bonds the two men. That's it's function. But on the page, it remains what it is—small talk. We're interested in Big Talk. Small talk and chit-chat, because of their very absence of conflict, in no way move your story (or Jim's and Ralph's) forward. We might need a sense of it and for how long it goes on, but we don't need to hear it word for word.

Only when coffee's being poured might Jim say, "Oh, by the way..." and state his request. "I need a hundred thousand. Fast."

Ralph might react, shouting "Are you out of your mind? That's the most ridiculous—" and by laughing so hard he spills his coffee.

That portion there has conflict and drama. Somebody wants something and the resulting encounter is going to affect the two men's relationship. In some way, for better or for worse, the status quo has changed.

Therefore, the reader needs to see—and hear—that scene. We need to hear the very words the two men speak (and see their body language as well) so that we truly understand what's going on and what it means.

When we quote our characters that way, using their specific language, we're using direct dialogue.

In real life, after the extreme reaction, there'd probably be some peace-making. Small talk again to soothe the troubled waters, try to restore harmony. Plus, there remains the practical business of life. Ralph has to get the spilled coffee off his suit. Somebody has to pay the restaurant bill, and both men have to stand up and take their leave. Again, unless what happens then further changes the status quo (e.g. Ralph demands that Jim buy him a new suit; the restaurant calls the police who arrest both men for causing a disturbance; Ralph suggests Gamblers Anonymous to Jim, who bursts into tears) we probably don't need to hear it word for word.

Necessary activities such as paying the bill, holding the door open for an incoming guest, or going to the parking structure nonetheless don't advance the story. They aren't dramatic, they don't relate to the ongoing problem of your story, nor do they change anything, so we don't need to dramatize them.

For undramatic parts like those, we can use the fictional version of fast-forward. We summarize them. For example, to get us to the point where Jim asks for the loan, we can write something like: "They ate sautéed fish and green salad and had two glasses of wine apiece and all the while, they talked about the unusually warm weather, a movie they'd both seen and the progress of their favorite teams. Only when the waiter poured their coffee did Jim lean back and say, 'Oh, by the way, Ralph...'"

We've gotten a sense of what sorts of topics they covered, and that's enough. But sometimes, an aspect within that summarized talk needs more specificity, so we have a third option: indirect dialogue. Here, you aren't quoting the speaker directly, but you are giving us a relatively clear idea of what was said. Instead of the summarized dialogue above, the writer could present that portion of lunch as: "They ate sautéed fish and green salad and had two glasses of wine apiece and speculated as to whether the Forty-Niners had a chance of ever making it to the Super Bowl again, given their less than stellar season."

You can mix these approaches so that you're emphasizing only the parts that characterize your people or move your story forward. For example, it might be important to give us a reason for Jim's eventual request for a loan by switching from the summary to a line of direct dialogue that's set inside the summary:

"They ate sautéed fish and green salad and had two glasses of wine apiece and talked about the unusually warm weather, a good movie both had seen and, inevitably, about whether the Forty-Niners had a chance of ever making it to the Super Bowl again. 'I believed in them,' Jim said. 'All season, I believed. Broke my heart and cost me a bundle.'"

The same idea applies to the aftermath of the conflicted portion. Often, you can leave the scene right there and skip all the business we have to take care of in life. If you think about movies and TV, you'll notice that they hit the high point of tension in a scene and cut directly to the next scene, beginning, again, as close to its dramatic high point as is possible.

If what happened afterward doesn't change the meaning of the scene or introduce something new, then you can end it as soon as we understand its import, filling in whatever you feel is important in summary. "Ralph resigned himself to paying for both their lunches, ignored Jim's nonstop pleas, and left as quickly as he could." We don't need to hear Ralph's mutters, or Jim's specific requests. Your the reader will fill in the blanks, getting a sense of what you mean, while focused on the important turns of the story.

In real life, we are often subjected to word-by-word boredom. In fiction, happily, there's no need for that.

Next lesson: Do actions speaker louder than words?

On to Lesson 12!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.