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Dialogues- How Not to Have One

Dialogues make the narration engaging. There are no two ways about it. No one would want to read pages and pages of paragraphs with no relief of dialogues in between. Even by looks, it is boring and monochromatic.

Dialogues are the strongest of the show tools that the writer has. It moves the narration forward by revealing some kind of knowledge. The knowledge can be about the personality of the character or the situation.

Eg- The dialogues may reveal more about the character ie… They are meek, humble, short-tempered, and flippant or they can talk about the situation faced by the characters ie stressful, disturbing or joyous, etc.

Dialogues are what one character does to the other.  No dialogues take place in a relationship vacuum. With dialogues, the reader intuitively understands and gauges the relationship between characters in a story.

Eg- The same character can be a submissive wife at home, and an irritable teacher at school and such complex traits can be shown by her interaction with others (dialogues)  in that particular place.

Most of us get the dialogues right by intuition. So instead of highlighting where dialogues can be used in a story, Let us discuss where dialogues cannot be used.

This is written from the perspective of stories that are character-driven and many pointers are based on Alice Laplante’s book, “The Making of a Story – A Norton Guide to Creative Writing.”

Dialogues Are Not Info Dumps

Dialogues should impart knowledge and move the narration forward. But knowledge need not be information. In fact, it should not be information. Example.

“Get up. It is half-past 7. You should have gotten up by 7 to catch your school bus. Now you are going to be late again,” Vimala hurriedly woke her kids up.

Imagine a mother waking up her kids in such a manner. For starters, she would not be recounting the information that they already know and that too when they were late to school. A better one would be,

“You are going to be late again,” Vimala barged into the kids’ room like a rhino on steroids and she looked like one too.

The knowledge that the kids are late (or it could be a peek into Vimala’s stressful life) is effectively transferred with no need for all the information about the school bus timing.

Dialogues Are Not for Describing

“My God, Edith. You look stunning in your red, off-shoulder, sequined dress, ” Nick exclaimed.

This needs no elaboration. One does not describe to show admiration. One just exclaims.

Instead, the following looks more organic and realistic.

“Wow!”

“What?”

“You look stunning.”

Dialogues Are Not for Extended Brooding

She said to me, “I sat there looking at the waves approaching me reluctantly. Their frothy tongues reaching out to me, yet retreating. I saw the universe talking to me, making an effort. The setting sun talked about another day. The twinkling stars cheered me. I thought about how infinitely small I am, but how abundantly essential to this world.”

This is my favorite and much-debated dialogue rule. Dialogues that are used for sulking and brooding. In such cases, I find it is mostly the author speaking rather than the character. That is the author’s pent-up view of the world forced through the mouth of the character. And it puts me off as a reader.

Many famous authors do this, though, and those lines even become their oft-quoted lines. To me, as a reader, the story resembles resembling self-help books. As an ardent fiction reader, I would want to be shown rather than be told how the characters feel, and extended brooding is just a quoted way of telling rather than showing.

A word on attribution – Some authors of creative writing books recommend using only ‘said’, while others encourage using strong verbs like ‘growled’, ‘spat’, or even ‘sang’ the words. But the former is gaining more support. In fact, if the two characters involved have distinct voices, attribution might not even be necessary.

As always, comments and discussions are welcome.

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Author’s Bio

Sarveswari Saikrishna is a short story writer, currently working towards her MFA Creative Writing degree from Writer’s Village University. Her stories were published twice in the literary magazine, TMYS and one fetched The Best Story title. She was a finalist in the mentorship project offered by Writers Beyond Borders. She is proud to be a part of several anthologies published by Artoonsinn and Hive.  She lives in Chennai with her family and dreams of a day when she can write without interruptions.

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