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Dialogue: Some Hints And Tips

In short story writing, dialogue is very important for a number of reasons. I’ve listed a few below, not in order of importance  - all are important - but to give a ‘points to ponder’ rundown. So - what about dialogue, then?

Dialogue can be defined as the interaction between two characters on a vocal level. Good dialogue can and should convey mood, information and move the story along.

It is important within a story specifically written for printing in, say, women’s magazines that there is dialogue within the story. Any story can be written as a narrative, that is to say as a descriptive passage  - the ‘he said, she said, they went, they did this’ type of writing. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, but on a magazine page it can look blocky and boring, with text-heavy paragraphs. Always try to intersperse dialogue - my research shows, very roughly, an 80/20 split between narrative and dialogue in women’s magazine stories.

Dialogue gives the reader an impression that the characters are real people - and that’s vital. Real people talk to each other, don’t they? However, characters in any story do NOT talk like real people. Let’s look at an example.

Real Life: ‘Hey, Tom - how are you? Did you stay late, er you know, after that row that Dan and Kate had? I mean, you know, that was really, well, quite a doozy. Could’ve wrecked the party, yeah? Don’t know what they were, you know, rowing about, do you?’

‘Hi, Bill, I’m fine. No, Mary and me had to get back for the sitter - you know how it is - so we left after a couple more drinks. Er, I haven’t seen Dan today, I think he’s working, maybe. But I think you’re right - the party was, like, finished by that row.’

Story Life: ‘Hi Tom, It’s Bill. That row between  Dan and Kate was a real party killer, wasn’t it? Do you know what it was about?’

‘Not a clue. We left after a couple more drinks, anyway - the party was finished. I haven’t seen Dan since to ask him what the problem was.’

Which reads better? And yet the ‘story life’ snippet is not the way people really talk to each other, is it? Prove it to yourself - next time you’re anywhere people are having a conversation, listen to all the ‘Ums’, ‘ah wells’ and ‘ers’.  The reason that this works for people in real life is that their communication isn’t restricted to speech. They convey emotion, opinion, suggestion and a host of other information by facial expression, tone of voice and body language - things that are very difficult to indicate accurately on the page. Too, the shorter, punchier speech used in ‘story life’ moves the story along - and if you’ve only got 2,000 words to work with your story needs to move pretty quickly.

Dialogue can introduce tension into a story that’s almost impossible to include in narrative. Whilst it’s true that a good writer can wind his reader up to screaming pitch with expert narrative, there usually simply isn’t either room or a call for it in the 2,000-worder.  For an example of narrative power, try reading Steven King’s ‘The Shining’ - the part where the bushes seem to come to life. That’s narrative description at its best. It’s much easier - and quicker - for a novice writer to escalate tension, or indicate a mood or feeling, by use of tight, accurate dialogue. Try an exercise. Write a dialogue piece about two people discussing the day’s news - maybe there’s been a building fire, or a politician has been exposed for dirty dealing - it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about word length - take the dialogue to it’s conclusion. Don’t use any narrative - make it a pure ‘talking heads’ situation. When you have finished, rewrite it using half the wordage whilst still keeping all the main points of conversation. Do you notice the improvement? Now read both aloud. Which do you think reads better?

There should be a balance between dialogue and narrative. In the example I just asked you to write, I mentioned ‘talking heads’. There is a danger when writing dialogue that this is what your story becomes - one long conversation.  Again, in real life this can happen but in story life it doesn’t. A temptation creeps in when writing to include every last detail in dialogue - the exact opposite of the ‘he said, she said’ reportive narrative. Whilst a fairly long dialogue string is not a problem - it is especially good for building tension through the use of very short sentences - used to excess it can leave a pretty bare-looking page. Long dialogue takes room. I’ve read novels where there are two, three and more full pages of solid dialogue. At least in a novel you have the room to do this - in a short story you’ll likely run out of wordage. Also, long dialogue strings can be tricky to handle if the reader is not to ‘get lost’. This is especially true if the characters have a similar ‘voice’ - it’s much easier to keep the reader on track if you have two very different ‘voices’ for your characters. Consider how differently a lecturer may speak in your story compared with one of his or her students - and how much easier the dialogue string is to handle if it’s to go on for any length of time!

In conclusion, I can summarise that, although dialogue is crucial to your story it mustn’t be allowed to dominate it. Always aim for a balance - the 80/20 split I mentioned earlier is a good benchmark to aim for as a novice short-story writer. Keep sentences short, leave out ums, ahs and so forth - they have no real place in written dialogue unless for a special effect ( a person with a bad speech impediment, for instance). And read! It’s all a part of knowing how it’s done - and most good writers are voracious readers. Get to know your market also - if you aim to write for women’s magazines - read them! (And guys - you can always pretend they’re for your wife or girlfriend at the checkout!)