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Writing the Short Story 6: Dialogue

by Editor Magazine   


The subject of dialogue in fiction is one that must necessarily be dismissed with a few general rules. Yet this does not mean that it is of trivial importance; on the contrary, it is vital. The story in which the speeches are stilted, superfluous, or lacking in character-suggestion, is a very poor story indeed.

As has been hinted, the primary demands are that dialogue be natural, tell the story itself and possess individuality that will suggest the speaker. Too many writers overlook these points and offer a mere labyrinth of twaddle. Bates puts it admirably when he says that "the use of quotation marks does not convert a passage into dialogue."

First, then, the speech of a character must be natural. It must reflect the dialogue of real people with whom we are familiar. It must be possible, logical and convincing. Often students are advised to write dialogue precisely as they hear it in real life. Except in rare cases, however, this is ridiculous. A street conversation contains few sentences that may be analyzed; it depends upon what the speakers see and understand, upon the movement of the eye or the hand or the shrug of the shoulder, upon the inflection of the voice, upon a thousand and one details that rob the words themselves of their full value when they are reduced to writing. Explanatory comments are advisable, of course, but they can not fully offset the weaknesses of this method. To the writer's mind, this advice should be modified sharply. First, write out the speeches as they are overheard; next, expand the fragments into complete sentences, that the full sense may be emphasized; finally, strike a happy medium by pruning the repetitions, the superfluous words, the phrases and clauses. The first draft will be incomplete and unintelligible; the second, stilted and heavy; the third should be the proper natural, necessary, individual dialogue of the story.

Most of us, of course, talk in prosy commonplaces. These are not for the story, as the function of its dialogue is to make the narrative attractive by sparkling wit or humor, spontaneous cleverness or sharply portrayed individuality. The story speeches should not be prosaic, simply because the plot offers situations of tension of interest; it deals with the super-
commonplaces, with emotions, intuitions, impulses, intoxications of the mind.

Second, the dialogue should be essential to the story. Conversation brightens some fiction and ruins other. Study the effect to be produced, bearing constantly in mind that dialogue gives freshness and brightness; that it is the froth of writing; and that straight narration is best reserved for more dramatic effects. The epigram is an outgrowth of dialogue; the humorous story is polished to a shimmering brightness by it; the bright society tale depends largely upon it for its smartness. The list, indeed, could be extended indefinitely.

A second consideration is the matter of superfluous writing. The beginner is apt to use dialogue for its own sake. Unless it adds to the story, it should be omitted. A speech that tells nothing, that suggests nothing, that is dropped in simply as a "brightener," is a severe drag. Each sentence of speech must accomplish a definite end. A good practice for study is an effort to determine the contribution of each and every speech. By all means, make the dialogue natural ; but do not allow it to digress, to overstep its limits, to do aught than actually tell the story itself.

Third, dialogue must portray character. In the beginner's story, it is customary to make all the people talk alike. There is no note of individuality; the reader must search for the form of "said" to determine the speaker. This gives puppets instead of real characters. A man's speech defines him; it may be a mask, but the experienced author only emphasizes the fact by its artificiality. It generally reveals clearly the heart and soul of the speaker.

In the fundamental study, the use of dialect offers an excellent starting point, although this tends to indicate classes or types rather than individuals. It is of great service, however, to the author who is striving to differentiate his characters.

This matter of the portrayal of characters by dialogue has already been discussed in an earlier chapter. In passing, however, it is worth noting that the speeches of a man vary according to the situation, the mood and the building or demolishing of character. The dialogue should be made the keynote.

The use of "said" for every speech marks the amateur. In the first place, if the dialogue is individual, it should suggest the speaker, making unnecessary the use of any form. Again, the subject, or reference to the preceding speech, may obviate any definite pointing out of the one who utters it. In the second place, there are hundreds of variations of "said." Every writer should compile such a list for himself, dividing the verbs to suit the moods, the characters, the situations and the modifying explanations.

Here is a point that can not be overlooked. The addition of a comment as to gesture, manner in which a speech is given, adaptability of remark to speaker, etc., is often a spice for the dialogue that makes a comparatively heavy speech thoroughly palatable. The study is one which must be developed by the student. Only a few generalizations can be offered:

1. Do not use any form of "said" unless clearness demands it.
2. Vary your verbs of speech, both to avoid monotony and to indicate the method or mode.
3. Avoid an overuse of adverbs.
4. Make the adverbs express the exact shade of meaning. Avoid overworked words like "cleverly," "manfully," and the like.
5. Use the form of "said" in the first natural pause of a speech, or at the end of the first sentence, unless some special effect is desired. Incidentally, the result to be accomplished by the speech should be studied before the dialogue is shaped.
6. Do not use adverbs unless there is some definite verb which they modify.
7. Strive always to avoid the cumbersome phrase or clause when the verb will suffice. "Laughed the girl" is much better than "said the girl with a laugh."
8. Avoid long phrases or clauses. At best, the explanation is a parenthetical comment that constantly threatens the interest of the speech itself.

The best way to learn to write dialogue is to put down the speeches in full, and then edit them. The revision may be grouped into rule suggestions as follows:

1. See that the dialogue accomplishes its demands, i. e., is natural, necessary, individual.
2. Eliminate the superfluous.
3. Substitute forms of "said" for portions of speeches; substitute modifying words, phrases and clauses.
4. Study the paragraphing of dialogue. This mechanical breaking of the story into paragraphs gives it movement and vim. It also solves the problem of differentiating the speakers and avoiding monotony. In this connection, the topic of interruptions should be given special attention.
5. Study your characters at first hand, and through this observation their speeches.
6. Read the best dialogues in printed fiction.
7. Write incessantly to acquire the necessary attributes of style governing dialogue. This is one kind of writing that demands practice more than study.

The best examples of work of this kind are to be found in current fiction. Study dialect, the dialogue of historical novels, the speeches of modern day characters in peculiar situations, etc. "The Mill on the Floss," in a number of its chapters, illustrates the introduction of many characters by means of conversation. "The Dolly Dialogues" serve as good examples of their kind. For psychological insight and dramatic skill, read Kipling and Jack London. Shakespeare carries lessons of many kinds. "Parlor Farces," by Howells, is worth a reading. Many magazines offer monthly examples of stories told largely in the form of dialogue.

Practical Exercises

The general exercises that will benefit have been suggested in part. The following practice attempts, however, will whet the mind:

1. Write a story wholly in dialogue, using only the necessary explanatory modifiers.
2. Strive to suggest the drift of a conversation by eliminating the actual speeches and retaining forms of "said," general directions and modifying words, phrases and clauses.
2. Rewrite some well-known story:
(a) Eliminating all dialogue and making it straight narration.
(b) Telling it wholly in dialogue.
(c) Reversing the positions of the hero and villain—or any two principal characters—and attempting to reveal individualities by changing the style of the dialogue.
4. Write a brief monologue with the sole idea of portraying the character of the speaker.
5. Work out in your mind new individualities for noted fiction-folk and strive to suggest them without changing any writing except the dialogue.
6. Record an overheard conversation.
(a) Write out conversational ideas in full.
(b) Eliminate superfluous passages.
(c) Make natural by the process described in this article.