Dialogue is a wonderful thing. Is it not? It brings dynamism and tension to a scene, conveys character and, let’s be frank about it, entertains and brings us closer. Speak and be heard. And I do not talk of cattle. Oh, wrong herd.
The question of dialogue in a novel is, perhaps, one of the most discussed topics among writers. What it is for, how it should be written and what it should not be are supposedly enshrined in immutable rules so that all may know and understand how to do dialogue. I like rules. Really. I do. See how my face expresses honestness and earnesty when I speak of them. For one thing, it’s hard to draw a straight line without one. And the world would fall over without them – straight lines, I mean. I’m all for staying upright. But dialogue? Let’s call her Jennifer.
So, who is Jennifer? What is she, exactly? Well, first off, she’s what you find between those curly things ‘ ’ or “ ”, quotation marks by another name, and we all know where other names led, don’t we. But let’s stick to curly things, at least while no one is looking. Anything that appears between them can be reasonably assumed to be, in general terms, Jennifer. More or less. But she likes to be free, does Jennifer, the kind of gal who runs naked along the sand, her hair dancing in the breeze, leaving footprints along the shore.
None of this means that a reader has to clear his (or her) throat, sit upright and speak forth the words between the curly things and become intimate with Jennifer, although, of course, they can if they is so moved and she allows it. But that’s not the point.
There is a case for arguing that dialogue does not have to be decorated front and back with either ‘ ’ or “ ” but the curvy – curly – things can make her easier to recognise. Nevertheless, text that is directed at the reader in a first-person narrative can be considered to be dialogue, of a sort. In my view, be it ever so ‘umble, is that first-person present is, in effect, a form of dialogue because the narrator engages directly with the reader as though both are present in the same place at the same time and one is speaking to the other. It is all an artifice, of course. It is all smoke and mirrors. When it comes down to it, if it works, then that’s all that matters.
Take Jack Coq for example. He speaks directly to you. He treats you as though you are there in front of him. He speaks in cant, criminal slang and madeuperisms of his own, none of which does he explain because, in the end, he assumes you understand him and cares not a fat fig if you don’t, just like a real person talking. And that’s how it’s written. Now, that’s dialogue. Ain’t it? We’ll come back to Jack Coq and the words he uses in a later blog. For the time being, we’ll stick with Jennifer because she’s a nice girl and good company.
So what is she, then, this dialogue stuff? What does she do? What’s she for? I mean, just what is the point of her? Eh? That’s all a tad cruel if you want my opinion and I think we should allow Jennifer to speak for herself.
Presenting Jennifer, ladies and gentlemen. Off you go, Jennifer, don’t be shy.
‘Thank you. Dialogue is not mere talking, of course.’
‘Dialogue is an excursion into another reality, reached through a side door in the text.’
‘Dialogue doesn’t mirror our conversations, arguments, instructions, discussions, rants and pleadings of the reality we inhabit.’
‘Does it not?’
‘Have you ever eavesdropped a real conversation between real people?’
‘Dull. Meaningless. Contextless.’
‘But I recommend it.’
‘Sounds pointless if you ask me.’
‘It’ll open your eyes.’
‘Your ears, I think you mean.’
‘Real-person conversation bears no resemblance to the dialogue in a novel.’
‘Chalk and elephants, marmalade and flax.’
‘Real conversation bears no resemblance to the dialogue in a play, even.’
‘And the dialogue in a play bears no resemblance to dialogue in a novel. Yet they share a commonality.’
‘Thank you, Jennifer. That was most informative, wasn’t it ladies and gentlemen? There. You have it from the lady herself.’
The other day, I read a piece setting out the kidney of dialogue in a novel. Among its wisdoms was the pearl that dialogue in a novel could not show nuance. Can it not?
For dialogue to work well in any novel, three elements need to be brought together, not in some prescribed formula, but in a dynamic alchemy that turns lead into gold. These are context, character and intent. These should be embroidered on your sleeves, tattooed on your fingers, stencilled on your eyeballs, absorbed by your soul.
Without context, dialogue almost invariably lacks tension, meaning and point. And by context, I mean scene setting, not merely in the immediate area of the dialogue itself but long before, pages, chapters earlier. Which brings us to character. Character is essential as this gives form to the words, their rhythm and cadence, makes what each character says theirs. And intent. I love intent. Intent allows subtext that colours what is said. Take the line ‘Darling, I love you’. Without context you have no way of knowing whether the speaker means it (I would die for you), in what sense they mean it (I’m never going to see you again), or if, in fact, they mean something else entirely (I hate your guts and hope you get eaten by tigers). Context and character lead to intent. Play the text. Nuance? I should think so.
Dialogue is supposed to drive the story along by tightening a tension, running a dynamic, in a particular situation which can, of course, go contrary to what the reader is expecting. It can set up a crisis point in the action. It can be the turning point in the story. But for any of that you need context as surely as we need oxygen. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.
Dialogue is not supposed to be an exercise in newsflashing, though, commonly referred to as information dumping. The revelation of details not hitherto mentioned or the repetition of information already revealed is not generally regarded as a good thing in dialogue. But, again, context is all. There are no rules, only guidelines. Information that must be imparted to the reader via dialogue can be reinforced with tension and act as a crisis point. The mere provision of information via some character turning up and delivering a newsflash becomes an exercise in dullness.
The issue of newsflashing can be entirely circumvented by adopting a policy of minimalism so that no character says more than about four words at a time, preferably fewer, except in specific circumstances. OK, so I ignored my own advice earlier but, hey, it ain’t a rule. Minimalist dialogue allows greater tension, more nuance and a stronger subtext to be written into it, should you so wish. The dialogue section should not be too drawn out, either, otherwise the tension is dissipated.
From all this, it becomes clear that dialogue should serve a specific purpose and should not merely break up the paragraphs of prose and act as light relief. This is the issue of intent. Why are these characters speaking? Do they mean what they say? Is there a subtext?
Subtext is a term more usually associated with plays than with novels. A subtext is created when speakers do not say what they mean, concealing their true intentions and feelings from those to whom they speak. Think unreliable narrator. This can develop a growing tension or introduce a new one, especially if the reader is gradually let in on the secret. But it can work just as well if they aren’t, provided they can be led to suspect that someone is not speaking honestly. If you give your speaker a long speech you tend to lose all that.
And silence. Do not overlook the silences. They can be very effective in building tension. Context is all, of course. Sometimes not saying something is more powerful that speaking. Credibility is lost if a taciturn character catches word diarrhoea. Moreover, if a character has more than one ‘sentence’ to utter, you have to ask why the other character(s) do not interrupt. ‘Sentences’ are not necessarily grammatically correct in dialogue, of course. Indeed, sentence fragments work much better. Silence, pauses and changes of subject are very effective tension drivers.
Which brings us to ‘he said’, ‘she said’, und so weiter. I don’t use them. Hate them. You have context. Don’t you? And if you have a multi-hander, context indicates who speaks. Actions can be better than speaker indicators; the latter are rather like sticking a hand up ‘Ooh, please sir, my turn’. Similarly, modifiers (she said loudly) are best avoided because they should be redundant because of the context (her voice was overwhelmed by the roar of the engine; of course she shouted).
Jennifer suggests that we have an extract from something. She suggests The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie. So, here we are.
I am none the wiser for Pigg’s exposition. His crew now present their case, each taking his cue for his predecessor, speaking by turn with a little action there, a bob and burn here to highlight the condition. All is random, so it seems. In and out. That’s the up and down of it.
‘We are players.’
‘Of modish means.’
‘We play all the parts.’
‘Comical and tragical.’
‘Poetical and musical.’
‘In many places.’
‘According to tradition.’
‘With a little social comment.’
‘To wet the wit.’
‘We have our entrances.’
‘And our queues.’
‘We provide diversions.’
‘Plays and performances.’
Pigg presents a majestic bow.
‘I am he. Henry Arlequin Pigg, master of all.’
A man goes into a shop and approaches the young lady behind the counter.
‘Good morning, young lady behind the counter. My name is George and I have come into your emporium to purchase some items from you if you would be so kind as to sell them to me. I live only a few hundred yards away from your shop but I used to live much further away in a house that needed a lot of decorating and had to come into the town on the bus, the stop for which is about 50 yards away from your establishment on the left hand side of the road looking east, so I still had a little bit of a walk if I wanted to come in here, which in wet weather meant that I got wetter than I would like but there you are, although I am always prepared for the rain because I make a point of carrying an umbrella, one of those collapsible ones which are very handy,’ explained George to the young lady behind the counter in a chatty and friendly manner because he was a chatty and friendly sort of chap.
‘Good morning to you George,’ remarked the young lady behind the counter whose name George did not yet know otherwise he would have used it as it is only polite to use someone’s name when you know what it is. ‘My name is Cynthia and I live about half an hour away and come into work on the bus every morning at about eight thirty unless the bus is late in which case I don’t arrive on time but the boss, Mister Plinth, is always very good about it and never chastises me, much. I work here, in this shop, called “The Shop” by the way, George. I’ve worked here for several years now and am very happy with my job because it gives me satisfaction to know I am helping people all day long with their purchases although when I was girl I wanted to be an astronaut but there you are. Did you know that?’ continued the young lady who worked in the shop called The Shop, behind the counter and was known by those who knew her as Cynthia.
‘Since you mention it, Cynthia, I didn’t know any of that. Thank you for trusting me with that information about yourself as it is very interesting. I appreciate your candour and I shall endeavour to cause you as little trouble as I possibly can in my attempts to buy what I came into here to buy,’ commented George in response to the young lady called Cynthia who was behind the counter in The Shop and always willing to help.
‘How may I help you George? What sort of items would you like to purchase from me in this shop called The Shop? I want to be as helpful as I can to you George as that is my job,’ responded Cynthia happily with a smile.
George entered the shop. He was desperate.