Dialogue about dialogue? How can we, you and I? We aren’t in the same room? Okay, I write, you read and accept or reject my thoughts that’s a Semi-dialogue? No matter, what I want to discuss is the second use of the term in the title, the dialogue of characters on the page, not any semi-conversation we have going.
So, what is this thing called dialogue. Certainly, you know it when you see it on the page, it’s always highlighted with “—“, quotation marks, the literary flag that someone is talking. But just putting the character’s words in quotes doesn’t necessarily cut it. Dialogue, particularly in fiction, is a powerful literary device.
Jordan Rosenfeld in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue puts it this way:
Dialogue is one of the most versatile elements of fiction writing because it can achieve multiple effects. When done well, dialogue can even be a scene-stealer. Most of the great lines in literature were spoken by character, not narrated.
Powerful statement that. Turning to film along with the stage, the penultimate in the use of literary dialogue, who can forget such gems as: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Or “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Or perhaps, “May the force be with you.” Well, you get the idea. You can add your own favorites to the list or if you’re stumped, “google it”.
I searched for something as memorable from narrative description but pickings are sparse here. I know there are those brilliant scenes or bits of action that exist but we seem to pass over them content in the experience of the moment but not allowing that experience to fix in our memories.
One such is: “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.” —To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Even this example is flawed as an argument because it is internal dialogue, monologue. We’ll talk about internal vs external dialogue another time.
Each of us is moved by different aspects of narrative description, but everyone is indelibly marked by a good line of dialogue. That’s how important dialogue can be to a work of fiction.
Gloria Kempton in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue has this to say:
You want your story to be three-dimensional, to include action, narrative, and dialogue. The challenge is to weave these three elements into each scene you write. In a three-dimensional scene, dialogue affects the narrative, and the narrative effects the action.
I respectfully disagree that the order of dialogue to narrative to action is the only order for these three legs of the three-legged stool of story. I think any lineup can be valid, however that is not the point. The main idea to be taken away is that dialogue is a necessary part for the stability of the story-stool. Not true you say. There are successful stories without dialogue. Perhaps the words in quotes are lacking, characters yacking back and forth, but are these pieces devoid of thought, internal monologue (i.e. dialogue)? Perhaps there are examples but generally, I think not many.
James Scott Bell makes this point in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: (love this book)
The main point is that dialogue is rich soil for sowing conflict and tension. Never waste it with small talk of throwaway lines.
Verbal dueling is one aspect of how characters achieve conflict and an important one. After all conflict drives story and learning how to use dialogue for that purpose is an important weapon in the writer’s arsenal. More on that in future posts.