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Flirting and Writing Good Dialogue

I love exposition: flowing sentences, tight action, enveloping description. Prose is great. But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering what makes dialogue tick.

Well-written dialogue is not conversation. Have you ever listened to the way people speak? Our conversations (regardless of our erudition) are almost always inane. Want proof? Spend an hour or two in a cafe listening to the conversations around you. Are they interesting? Do they raise tension? Do they give us deeper, subtle insight into the speakers? Only marginally. We waste words, meander around topics, count on body language to fill in gaps, and stutter over halting words like “Umm” and “Uhh” and “Well”. It’s a signal-to-noise problem: in our everyday discussions, there is far too much noise to isolate a clean narrative signal. Well-written dialogue may not be conversation, but I think of it as a particular type of conversation: flirting.

Writing Dialogue with Game

It’s a great feeling when our game is on, and every exchange is tantalizing, enticing, teasing, and provocative. Our goal in flirting is always to draw someone in deeper: into our heart, our head, or – fine – our pants. Sure, there’s a functional level to it: on the surface, we might be talking about where to get dinner that night. But we all know what’s really going on, and odds are it doesn’t have much to do with oysters on the half-shell.

Conceptual Diagram for Good Dialogue

Functional versus Emotional Dialogue

Good dialogue works the same way. Superficially, information needs to be exchanged and decisions need to be made to either move the plot forward or lay the groundwork for doing so later. That’s the functional level of dialogue. But as the writer, we use that exchange to flirt with the reader. Below that functional level, we want to draw them in, heighten the underlying tension, and make them care deeply about the characters involved. So how can we do that?

Less is More: Make Every Word Count

When I have been particularly flirtatious (not that it happens often, but it has happened…once…I think), I feel like every sentence, every word I uttered made the other person dig me more. That’s not because my every utterance was gold. It’s because everything I said was just enough and not too much to accomplish my functional and emotional goals.

Imagine you’re trying to ask someone out to dinner. Your functional goal is for them to share a meal with you. Your emotional goal is for them to want to. If you come at them with a multiple-paragraph emotion-laden monologue, at best you’ll be shot down. At worst, out comes the pepper spray. In that conversation, you want to give them just enough to want more – more conversation, more shared experiences, more of you. Brevity – in this instance – is your friend. Of course, you don’t want to just bark “Yo! Dinner?” That’s probably going a little too far in the opposite direction. It has no emotional resonance, no hidden layers of private meaning.

Probably the best tool I’ve found to find the happy medium is the comic book panel. As I’ve talked about before, panels are the basic building block of sequential art. Each panel uses both art and dialogue to manage the reader’s experience. But here’s the thing: a panel is a limited space. If we want the art to do its job, then the panel naturally constrains the amount of dialogue it can contain.

A good rule of thumb is for panels to not exceed twenty-five words of dialogue. That previous sentence has fifteen. Now we’re up to twenty.

There. That paragraph directly above is the amount of dialogue that will typically fit comfortably in a panel. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for wasted clauses, wasted words, wasted feelings. It needs to be absolutely tight: one sentence, two sentences, maybe three. It may be an exchange, or in that one panel one person may be the only one speaking. But thinking about dialogue in terms of twenty-five word panels within a scene really helps me to pare my characters’ dialogue to the bare essentials.

What did you say? Making Every Word Clear

Clarity’s another important factor. When flirting, if every other sentence is “What? What did you say?” odds are it’ll be quite a turn off. The same holds true for dialogue. We want our readers to instantly understand the surface level of dialogue so that they can internalize the underlying emotional level.

This is why I’m always nervous about dialect in dialogue, especially in genre fiction. One of the defining characteristics of speculative literature is the use of neologism to signify new concepts. The creation of new terms and new concepts is so important that Istvan Csicsery-Ronay dubbed it science fiction’s “first beauty” in his excellent The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. We use new words and alien languages as a world-building tool, to defamiliarize the user and transport them to a reality where our fantastical story can take place. But before we can grok Valentine Michael Smith’s dialogue, we need to grok the word itself.

Like so many aspects of writing, this is a balancing act. And one that even experienced and skilled authors can get wrong. For example, I have loved China Miéville’s writing since his first novel, King Rat. Yet I found myself unable to enjoy his more recent Kraken because I found that it took so much effort to understand what the characters were saying on a superficial level, that I lacked the energy to get emotionally invested. Were the dialogue there slightly clearer, no doubt I would have loved the characters and the story as much as his other books.

Coming at Dialogue From the Side

Flirting is as much about what is left unsaid as what is stated. Good dialogue is the same. Sol Stein describes it as obliquity in Stein On Writing, and I think that’s a pretty good description of both flirting and writing good dialogue. Consider the following two exchanges:

DIRECT “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“I want to eat a garden salad, have two glasses of red wine, and engage in coitus with you,” Jane said.

OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this, a little of that,” Jane said.

The first is painfully direct and clinical. It leaves nothing to either John’s or the reader’s imagination. The second does not – in fact – answer John’s question. It leaves the entire answer to the imagination. The entire experience – and its emotional significance – is left for our reader to find between the lines.

In some cases, the direct approach is smart. Used in counterpoint to oblique dialog, it can be used to drive the point home. Consider a slightly modified direct approach:

DIRECT “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“Have sex,” Jane said.

Here, the frank approach to the underlying subject matter stands out against more oblique dialogue. If every exchange read like this one, the book would turn monotone. And if every exchange were perfectly oblique, the book would be abstruse. When focusing on principal characters and particularly meaningful scenes, I try to go beyond the merely functional and lean towards obliquity. But with judicious application, a little directness adds extra spice.

Blending Prose and Dialogue

In one sense, comic books have it easy. Sequential artists have an extremely expressive medium (art) to place the dialog in context. They can communicate tone, setting, attitude in fractions of a second. Those of us laboring in prose have exposition to do the same, but text is by its nature less expressive than illustration. So how do we intersperse prose into dialogue for best effect?

Just about any good writing book or teacher will tell you to avoid active reporting clauses (he said/she said). It’s still like flirting. If someone were trying to flirt with us and they screamed every statement, growled every question, and sighed every punctuation mark, odds are we’d remember a pressing engagement elsewhere pretty quickly (unless both people involved are angsty teenagers, in which case they might not even notice). But that does not mean we’re limited to the factual he said/she said.

We can also play with placement. Consider our earlier oblique passage. What would happen if we moved the reporting clause elsewhere in the second sentence?

ORIGINAL OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this, a little of that,” Jane said.

MODIFIED OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this,” Jane said, “a little of that.”

Moving the reporting clause to the middle of the sentence introduces a beat that the reader won’t even consciously notice. Instead, they’ll pause for a half-second as they read it and fill that pause with meaning. Maybe they’ll picture Jane winking, or giving a mischievous little smile.

We can also substitute actions for the reporting clauses, though this may be a slippery slope. Consider:

ORIGINAL OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this, a little of that,” Jane said.

MODIFIED OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this,” Jane said, “a little of that.”

ACTIVE OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

Jane took his hand. “A little of this, a little of that.”

ACTIVE DIRECT “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

Jane took his hand. “Have sex.”

By prefacing Jane’s statement with a simple action, we can help put it in context. It’s like a marker guiding the reader to the conclusion we want them to reach. This should be used sparingly however, because it can otherwise lead to problems. For example, if a character says something while “spinning” many readers will imagine them twirling like a top while speaking…which is probably not the effect you were going for.

The Transparency of Great Dialogue

I’ve never heard a book described as “having great dialogue but really lousy prose.” (though the opposite is unfortunately common). The reason for that is that truly great dialogue is utterly transparent: its effects on us are palpable, but indistinguishable from the those of the book as a whole. We can’t truly say whether we’re invested because of the dialogue or the prose. What we know is that the dialogue supplements the prose and gives us pulls us deeper into the story. If the prose is an attractive person spotted across a dance floor, then the dialogue is the test of whether they’re nice. And can hold a conversation.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Description, action, dialogue–the triple threat for any writer. Someone somewhere also recently wrote that good movies could be fine examples of dialogue; like the graphic-novel format, the word-count is restrained–though by time rather than panel space.

    June 28, 2011

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