Dialogue is just one of those things that some people get and many more don’t. Luckily, I’ve got a pretty good handle on it. The one thing that is consistently pointed out as a “done right” in my stories is the dialogue. Even when my plots go to hell and my characters turn into obvious and superficial avatars of my own fantasies and angst, those characters can chat together in a convincing way.
I wrote a good presentation on this matter about 2 years ago, and I meant to just re-post it here, but I seem to have lost the document. Here’s the upshot: dialogue isn’t neat. People step on each others lines, cut each other off, say everything all at once and say nothing at all.
The best advice on dialogue I ever got was an account that dialogue falls like marbles through a pachinko machine. It bounces off of tangential elements, flows with only the loosest suggestion of a pattern, and is almost never the most direct way to move a story forward.
Dialogue is a creative digression. With dialogue, we can get a sense for what characters sound like, and we can get a more total immersion than a paraphrase or summary (these in turn being the most direct way to move a story forward, but the least characterful).
But dialogue is actually a terrible way to convey narrative information (Aristotle contrasted diegesis with mimesis in Poetics, and it’s a worthy distinction}. Characters, if they are realistic at all, are just as confused and prejudiced as their living counterparts. Characters talk about stupid shit and they lack perspective of their own situation. Without meaning to, characters lie to the reader.
Gertrude Stein had a great handle on this, and if you were to read Three Lives, and “Melanctha” in particular, you’d read about a series of characters who seem incapable of either telling the truth or revealing it. They say what they think they mean, and the reader gets the unique vantage point of knowing that what they mean is out of sync with the world about them.
Characters exist in this weird sort of object state wherein they are the focus of the reader’s attention, but themselves have limited understanding of their environments. A character is only a single point of perspective, and one of the worst things a writer can do is to have a character function as a truth-sayer. Ayn Rand is guilty of this, and so is Robert Heinlein. While arguably they were making philosophy before art, that excuse doesn’t magically make their didactic and pontificatious dialogue any good.
So that got a little bit meta faster than I meant it to. To put it back on track, there are three types of completely craptastic dialogue that must be avoided.
1) Preachy dialogue – this is when the author creates a character that always speaks the truth, always makes deep and profound philosophical points, and is infallible in all matters logic (at least, within the text). This character is the author’s in-book surrogate, and a complete Mary Sue. What he has to say is so important that it can’t be interrupted by other characters, nor even to take a breath.
Example: “What we’re reading here is crap – if you want to study the excesses of depravity, then you should read Anais Nin, who handled this far more ably than anything we’ve done in this class. Furthermore, if you want to understand American dis-affectation, then I don’t know why we’re not reading Nietzsche, who was more profound than this printed dribble the elitist academy is foisting on us.”
2) Teachy Dialogue – This extremely common faux pas involves two characters spending a great deal of time telling one another things that they should already know, usually for the reader’s “benefit.” This is most common in specialized setting fiction: science fiction and fantasy, of course but also stories set “at work,” stories about lawyers and doctors and other people with jargon-rich professions.
Example: We have to defeat the dark lord Gothbad, who rules this realm of Goodlandia with an iron fist – and if we don’t do it by next Tuesday, princess purehymen will die from the curse that Gothbad put on her when he captured her!
3) Inane Chatter – This sort of dialogue, also known as babble-itis, comes from a slavish devotion to verisimilitude. While the devil certainly is in the details, this writer has attempted to include every hem, haw, if, and, and but so that no detail is made significant. Far from actually having the good ear the writer lays claim to, this author could just as easily be replaced by a tape recorder. A good ear can capture nuance, but it is also discriminating, whereas this author’s ear takes on all comers.
Example: “How’s it going,” Bob asked, rubbing his hands together for warmth. “What’s that?” Sally asked. “I said ‘how’s it going,” Bob repeated. “Oh fine,” Sally said, “nice weather we’re having.” “Yes, the weather is nice,” Bob agreed.
So who’s got it right (other than me)? I can’t suggest a better dialogue coach than Ed McBain. Pic up any of the 87th precinct stories and just watch how the characters go back and forth, playing off one another’s cues, get distracted, say nothing and everything all at once. These are light reading with exemplary dialogue that drifts, flows, bounces, and reveals.
Looking Back – 8 July 2021
Not bad. If I had to say I missed any one special mark, it would be on the third point which, by way of example, provides a belabored conversation albeit bereft of context – within the confines of a certain type of story, that sort of tortured dialogue might be convincing, useful, and arduously suspenseful.
I guess the upshot of what I’d criticize really comes down to proclamation, or didactic certainty. There’s no certainty. Everything finds its way eventually, even clunky dialogue.
This post is one of the first and only in which I specifically mention Rand – I had friends who were sort of into her at the time, and I’m happy to say that either I’m no longer friends with those people, or those people have grown up and moved on. While I agree with one popular sentiment regarding the worst aspect of Rand being Rand fans (i.e. everyone, especially mediocre white men, thinks they’re super-geniuses and should be praised and obeyed and should have no obligations and their mom should just give them chicken tendies whenever they want), I also believe there’s really no point trying to salvage any debatably good stuff.
For what it’s worth, I also entertain the conspiracy that Rand is some sort of Russian apparatchik – a Tsarist, sent to America, to conflate monarchy with capitalism and socialism with Bolshevism. I have no proof of this conspiracy and, in fact, the toxic effect of Rand’s writing on the American politiscape is so thorough and so powerful that it’s actually hard to believe it could be done on purpose.
Digression aside: dialog can be hard for a lot of writers and I think, or rather suspect, that part of this difficulty stems from many writers’ tendency towards introversion. Writers who hold themselves above “small talk” don’t develop the ear for it nor, consequently, the skill for writing it. Raise a glass for tedious chit-chat, I suppose.