In Jerome Stern’s lexicon for writers, Making Shapely Fiction, he writes: “Good dialogue moves the plot forward.” In an earlier essay, Garin explored how to utilize plot arc to construct momentous scenes. Now, she focuses specifically on dialogue: How can dialogue move the plot effectively?
You know the conversations. Talk on your date fizzles. A coworker corners you with an endless camera roll of cat photos. The phone call with your mother becomes a déjà vu filled episode of the Twilight Zone. We’re all aware of becoming trapped in less than scintillating dialogues. Yet, writers are often guilty of replicating similarly repetitious or meandering conversations on the page. Some might call this realistic dialogue. But I believe realistic should take a backseat to effective.
For me, effective dialogue is clear, organic, and moves a piece forward. Achieving this minor feat is (like most things in writing) easier said than done. But there are two basic questions that can help sharpen your characters’ conversations, if not your real-life ones.
Of course, you know the answer. But what the writer knows and what the reader knows are vastly different things. In submissions, I regularly encounter floating conversations, often resulting from a simple lack of dialogue tags (said/asked). A solid rule of thumb is no more than four lines of dialogue without a tag, or an action to indicate who’s speaking.
Nothing pulls me out of a story more than backtracking through a section of dialogue to figure out whose line is whose. To some writers, I’m sure dialogue tags feel unnecessary. The speaker appears obvious, why bother spelling it out? Especially, when striving for that super skinny word count. But trust me, it’s not worth confusing, and thereby losing, readers, just to cut out a couple dozen words.
One caution, however. We writers thirst for originality. But when it comes to tags: Resist that thesaurus urge. Get a rubber band and snap your wrist every time you find yourself reaching for a “cajoled” or “intoned”. “Said” and “asked” are commonly used because they work. Readers are so attuned to these words, they barely register. Which is precisely the point of tags—keeping us on track without distracting us.
Floating conversations don’t just occur because of missing tags. If a scene contains nothing but quoted dialogue and adequate tags, it’s still floating. There’s no sense of where this conversation is taking place or who the speakers are on a character level. Stories that have solid pages of uninterrupted dialogue don’t feel like stories, they feel like transcripts. Which generally leaves the reader asking the dreaded, Why do I care?
This renders actions and other descriptions important elements in any dialogue. Think about the number of times you’ve remained absolutely still during a conversation. We regularly rely on physical cues to help convey meaning, or to interpret someone else’s. If someone chews their lip while nodding, we know they don’t really agree, they just don’t want to argue. Providing your characters with the same sort of physical context makes the dialogue feel more vibrant, a reminder that there are living bodies behind these words. Even if a character isn’t moving, commenting on that unnatural, restrictive stillness helps texture your dialogue.
Floating conversations also happen when a piece lacks what we call grounding. The dialogue doesn’t feel anchored in the story and this sense of detachment transfers to the reader. Beyond building setting, grounding can emphasize emotional states or conflicts. A character who tastes something bitter as they speak is understood to be in an unpleasant situation. One who feels the cold penetrating the windowpane as the snow piles up outside has stressed the fact that the characters are trapped.
An effective piece of dialogue won’t just make clear who’s physically speaking, but the situation in which they’re speaking and the significance of their words to the story. Which brings me to my second question.
Why Are We Talking?
When people say dialogue needs to be realistic, I find what they often mean is dialogue needs to be organic. In other words, it needs to feel like something these characters would actually say to each other. Dialogue that doesn’t seem to generate organically rings false not because it’s unrealistic, but because it feels forced.
Overly expository dialogue is by far the most common offender when it comes to forced dialogue. The problem here isn’t the words themselves. Expository dialogue is information the character knows and is usually conveyed in their natural syntax. The problem is, it’s not something they’d normally bother to talk about. These dialogues feel forced because they’re primarily for the benefit of the reader, not the characters themselves.
Two machinists sitting at a bar aren’t going to have an in-depth conversation about how many years they’ve been on the job and how the technology has changed. No, they’re going to bitch about the boss or their backache. A clever writer will use that backache to show us that they’ve been in this job a long time. Or the bitching to indicate the boss doesn’t know how to operate the older technology. In this way, exposition can be incorporated into dialogue without forcing explanations that characters have no reason to make.
Expository dialogue is a common problem in genre stories where an entire world or alternate history needs to be explained. Often a young protagonist will find themselves regaled in detail about these things. This may be essential information, but is it essential dialogue? Could this not as easily be conveyed in summary, and perhaps more succinctly?
Genre pieces are by no means the only culprits. Consider any literary conversation of a “Remember when?” or “There’s something I never told you about your father” variety. Again, important information, but is dialogue the right vehicle for it? Or is this the moment for a flashback to shine? Events that are explained at length in dialogue often have more impact when made into fully fledged scenes of their own. This allows for a direct experience instead of secondhand information.
But also consider the flow of your story. Imagine if Darth Vader paused on that catwalk to give Luke the whole history of his relationship with Luke’s mother. Sometimes, there’s more tension to be gained by leaving questions unanswered and moving a scene forward.
A less frequent form of forced dialogue is sermons—generally lengthy blocks of dialogue in which a character, or pair of characters, discuss detailed philosophical/ethical/political beliefs. It’s great for characters to have deep convictions. But unless you’re a 19th century Russian novelist, this is probably not going to be an effective mode of expression because we’ve again stumbled into dialogue that feels aimed at the reader rather than the participating characters. Dialogue should never seem intended to have more impact outside the story than it does within it. When this happens, the story doesn’t appear to be advancing. The energy is focused outward instead of driving the piece forward.
To avoid sermons, consider how a character can put their beliefs into action. Don’t have a character tell us what they think, show the consequences of how they think. We sit through Raskolnikov’s philosophizing because his thinking leads him to kill that poor old lady. There is an external consequence to his internal struggle. Your stakes don’t need to be quite as dire, but when characters start talking there should always be potential for change, however slight. The goal of asking yourself, “Why are these characters in dialogue?” is hopefully to reach the answer “Because things will be different after.” In this way, we feel ourselves moving ever onward in the story.
by B.B. Garin