From Rick:

As I mentioned in last week’s brief post, Scott and I lately have been quite busy. So, for a while, we’re going to reduce the length of our blog posts, dividing them into multiple posts when necessary, to give us more breathing room.

Here begins a multi-part series on dialog, what I consider to be the most important of the five narrative modes in writing. In case you don’t remember the five narrative modes, they are: action, description, dialog, exposition, thoughts. While they’re all important, it’s been said that most modern novels are 40-60% dialog, as opposed to narration, which for purposes of this discussion we’ll use to mean everything other than dialog.

Certainly you can have an all-dialog story (and we’ll consider one shortly) as well as an all-narration one. Fables are perhaps the best example of the latter.

In this series, we’re going to cover various aspects of dialog, when to use it instead of narration (and vice versa) and how to use it effectively. We’ll also talk about slang and dialect, particularly when and how to use the latter without turning your reader off. So, let’s get started.

What is the role of dialog in a story? Why do we use it at all? For one, it helps pull the reader into the story and the characters. Good dialog should either characterize the speaker or advance the plot. The best dialog does both. Of course, dialog can entertain, but that should never be its only purpose.

Dialog should minimally explain. Don’t use it as a substitute for exposition, but as an addendum to exposition. Be sure you add the character’s personality with it. One mistake new writers frequently make is to write dialog that basically does nothing–it’s idle chit-chat. Here’s an example.

Paul shuffled into the kitchen in the tank top and boxers he’d slept in. Greg, his roommate sat at the table pouring milk onto his cereal.

“How did you sleep last night?” Greg asked.

“I had a weird dream, probably because I was too hot,” Paul said. “We should call the landlord again about the air conditioner. It’s been broken for two weeks.”

“Yes, I know. Do you have any plans for today? I thought I’d go to the mall and check out the music stores. I need some new music to listen to.”

Paul grabbed a cereal bowl and sat opposite Greg. “Maybe I’ll go with you. Best Buy has some sales going on. I could use a new laptop.”

Aside from the fact that this is plot-less, boring conversion, it also tells us nothing about the characters’ personalities or even their ages. In fact, without dialog tags, we have no clue as to which one is talking because they both talk the same. Is there a way to get differentiate them without telling the reader directly?

Paul shuffled into the kitchen in the tank top and boxers he’d slept in. Greg, his roommate sat at the table pouring milk onto his Cheerios.

“Dude, you look like shit. Not sleep well?” Greg asked.

Paul pulled his sweat-soaked tank top away from his chest. “Bizarro dreams. I’m gonna call our lazy-ass landlord–again. If he doesn’t fix the AC this week, we’re deducting it from the rent. Two weeks with no AC–”

“No argument from me. Got any plans for today? I thought I’d go to the mall and check out the music stores. I need some new tunes.”

Paul grabbed a cereal bowl and sat opposite Greg. “Count me in. Let’s stop at Best Buy. Time for a new laptop. Some of the online games keep crashing mine.”

Still not a glowing piece of literature, but at least we have some personality in the dialog, and we’ve doled out the information in a more natural way. Clearly these are two younger guys now, and their dialog feels more natural.

The ultimate challenge is to pull off an all-dialog piece where everything comes out in the dialog naturally, yet nothing feels forced. A long number of years ago, I was attending a workshop (I was one of the people being critiqued that evening) where the instructor began with a simple exercise. She asked us to take ten minutes to write a short all-dialog story (no exposition whatsoever) expressing a conflict between two characters. She added one catch: no dialog tags.

Here’s what I wrote.

“You should never hit a kid.”

“Why not? Pain’s a strong deterrent. When Mom pulled out the hairbrush…”

“She never hit us.”

“She never hit you. Girls don’t get smacked.”

“She never hit you either.”

“How about my seven-year-old temper tantrum that smashed her favorite china doll?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You were just a baby. My butt never forgot. Hard plastic, not the soft stuff we have now.”

“Back then parents didn’t understand. The psychologists say physical punishment is obsolete.”

“We never studied that in my psych courses.”

“Maze running in lab rats hardly qualifies as child psychology, Mr. Ph.D.”

“How’s Ted feel about punishing kids?”

“He agrees with me.”

“Wait’ll you two have a kid. I’d love to be there to see Ted patting the little darling on his sweet little head and telling him that it wasn’t appropriate behavior to kick daddy in the balls.”

After I read it aloud, the instructor said, “Not bad. Why didn’t you do that in your story?”

This was a rough draft. Later, I reworked it.

“You should never hit a child.”

“Really. If my kid ever did that to me, I’d give him something to cry about. Remember Mom’s hairbrush?”

“She never hit us.”

“She never hit you. Back then girls never got punished because mothers believed girls never did anything wrong and boys were always the troublemakers. She didn’t see you like I did.”

“She never hit you either, dear brother.”

“Oh? How about my seven-year-old temper tantrum, the one where I smashed her favorite china doll?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You don’t want to remember it, but my ass remembered it for a long time. That hairbrush was hard plastic, not the soft shit we have now. I never touched her stuff again, and I didn’t grow up emotionally damaged.”

“Well, back then parents didn’t understand. All the child psychologists today agree that physical punishment is obsolete.”

“All, or just four out of five? And why don’t I remember that from any of the multiple psych courses I took?”

“Maze running in lab rats hardly qualifies as child psychology, Mr. Ph.D.”

“Good point. Rats don’t scream their heads off for no reason at all. How’s Ted feel about punishing kids?”

“He agrees with me, of course.”

“Uh huh. Somehow, I just can’t picture Ted patting the little snotnose on his sweet little head with one hand while he was cradling his nuts with the other and telling your little darling that it wasn’t appropriate behavior to kick daddy in the balls.”

Again, I’m not claiming this to be Pulitzer-prize-winning material, but it characterizes each speaker and tells a complete story (beginning, middle, end, with conflict and resolution), all without feeling forced. One could picture such a conversation in real life.

Look over some of your own dialog. Is it mundane or does it sparkle? Does your dialog move the story along? Do the characters have different voices, or do they all sound alike (and sound like the author rather than individuals)?

In Part 2, we’ll delve more into developing character through dialog.

–Rick