Many articles have been written about dialogue; I've even written a few myself. Most that I've seen address the mechanics of conversation on the page: how to do dialogue attribution and how to avoid the appearance of talking heads. Fewer discuss the issue of deciding what your characters should talk about.
There are good reasons for not tackling this topic. First, nearly anything can be in conversation, so it is a challenge to cover in a column. Your genre makes a difference, too. If you are writing a romance, you can expect more languid conversations about feelings, whereas in a mystery the dialogue is more likely to be of the question-and-answer variety, in which you scatter clues both true and false. Finally, your decision of what your characters should talk about is an artistic one, up to you, so making recommendations is it is awkward to give advice. Still, I think that it is possible to develop some principles to help you create and manage the conversations you show on the page.
Dialogue, when given verbatim, is, by definition showing and not telling, creating an immediacy, a sense for the reader of actually being there. That is why many columns on creative writing recommend including more dialogue. When you put something into dialogue, you are signaling that it is important, that it will be interesting to the reader. Nevertheless putting something into dialogue only indicates that it is supposed to be interesting; that does not mean it is interesting. Certainly we all know bores in our real, non-virtual lives; they exist in stories, too.
Let's go through several types of conversation, and consider how they will affect your story. Will they pick up the pace or put your readers to sleep? Do you want to have your readers talk about these topics, or would you prefer to put them into the narrative?
When your characters meet each other, what do they say? When they leave each other, what do they say? Should you even show this? Here's a possible example:
Joanie was skipping along the sidewalk when she saw a gray-haired woman across the street. It took her a moment to recognize that the woman was Joanie's second grade teacher, for Joanie had never seen her outside the school before. "Hello, Mrs. Keys!"
Here's a different approach:
Joanie was skipping along the sidewalk when she waved and called hello to her second grade teacher across the street.
These are very different. In the first we have the greeting verbatim; in the latter the greeting is mentioned. The first example is showing, whereas the latter is telling. Does that mean that the former is better?
Not necessarily. Like nearly everything else in this column, the answer will be, "it depends." Do you want the passage to slow down and focus and give your readers lots of information, or do you want to speed up? Second, where is the story going and how does the dialogue serve your direction?
Greetings and good-byes can be written in such a way that they give useful information, such as reminding the readers of the names of characters. They can convey emotional hits, too: your protagonist may be intensely relieved or reluctant to say hello or good-bye. Or they can serve as a padding paragraph, which is not always a bad. Finally, of course, they help do something important for the story: they move your characters in and out of scenes and encounters.
"Pass me the salt."
"Would you like the pepper, too?"
Perhaps your characters' conversation covers the mundane, such as the weather, past, present or predicted; the food and drink they are consuming; or other everyday subjects. Are these good topics of conversation or not? Again, my "it-depends" answer comes with a few considerations to help you decide.
Natural: These subjects are discussed all the time, so they will help your readers feel at home with your characters and your story. It is a chance to show what your characters normally talk about -- their concerns and priorities -- as well as how they talk.
Setting: The discussion of the mundane can help readers relate to your setting. It helps put them in the world you are trying to create.
Information: Key plot information can be released in discussions about the mundane. This is especially useful when you want to hide information in plain sight, such as clues that as an author of a detective story you must in all fairness give to your readers but to which you don't want to draw attention.
Generally, however, a conversation on these topics, without a lot of emotional content, slows the story down.
"Exposition" is fancy writer-lingo for paragraphs of dialogue or narrative that cover backstory. Often this information is necessary for the readers to understand the significance of current events. Nevertheless, exposition can create some difficulties when it occurs in conversation.
Telling Not Showing. Even though verbatim dialogue nearly always falls into the showing instead of telling category, exposition is telling instead of showing. As such it can slow down the readers' experience of current action.
Logical For Your Characters? Another challenge with backstory is that it should generally be known to your characters. If so, it may be odd for your characters to talk about something they already know in detail. One way to solve it is to have one of the characters not know the backstory. Another solution is to recognize it as a piece that has been discussed before: the listener can be eager for the story, like a child listening to a favorite bedtime tale, or else resentful and bored, annoyed at having to hear the same information again.
"I think we should take the path going south."
"And you should carry a few extra water bottles."
"That's a good idea too."
It is pleasant in life when others agree with you, but stories become dull if your characters agree on everything. Although you could write out the above, you could also summarize it with a sentence such as "They took extra water with them along the southward path."
Compare the passage above with the following:
"I think we should take the path going south."
"Forget it! I'm not moving."
"And you should carry a few extra water bottles."
"Did you hear me? I'm not moving, so I'm not carrying nothing."
Most readers would feel that in the second passage the story is moving even if the characters are not. Certainly verbal disagreements -- one type of conflict so useful for stories -- can energize a passage. Nevertheless, agreements have their uses too. Perhaps an agreement signals the happy end of your story, where the hero is at last proven right. Perhaps it is a respite from conflict within your story. Or perhaps it is actually adding to the tension, as the characters are agreeing with each other but should not.
Here are some examples of praise:
"You're so wonderful!"
"You're the most beautiful woman on the planet!"
"You're brilliant, Jack!"
"Tell me more!"
Although including some praise is useful, only those who are the subject of compliments -- and their devoted parents or partners -- can listen to page after page of praise. There's also the question of what exactly should be said in response to words of praise from "Aw, shucks," "Stop it," "Thank you" (or what I would say, "Tell me more!" ) Praise works fairly well towards the end, when your heroine has fulfilled her difficult quest, though and only intermittently in the middle, when characters need some encouragement.
There's also ridicule:
"You're so disgusting!"
"He's the creepiest guy I know!"
"You can't get anything right!"
These phrases also have their place in dialogue. You can go a lot further, too, by adding colorful words and specificity to the insults.
Your protagonist can either respond -- defend himself or agree with the assessment -- or simply eavesdrop and not respond in the dialogue at all. These words can serve as a turning point for your story, because this sort of negative talk can be so emotionally devastating that it motivates a different course of action for your protagonist. Perhaps he attacks in anger. Perhaps she runs away. Perhaps he overcomes his difficulties and becomes the high school quarterback and the homecoming king.
"I can't stand him. He leaves his socks in the middle of the bedroom floor, the toilet seat up, and does he ever thank me for everything I give him?"
Reader can often relate to complaints; in reasonable doses, they can be very entertaining. Complaining can illustrate character, motives, dialogue and setting; it also provides another opportunity to hide plot points which in all fairness should be revealed to the reader but which you, as the author, do not want to make too obvious.
"So, I have a confession to make."
"What? Did you take the money?"
"No, but I know who did."
Revelation in dialogue is similar to exposition in the sense that it often answers questions about the characters. One way it differs from exposition is that it often reveals questions that your readers and characters have about the story (exposition often answers questions that the readers did not know that they had).
What is revealed depends on the rest of your story. If it is romance, it may be a declaration of love. In a mystery, it may be who the killer was -- or how the deeds were done.
I'm sure there are many other areas of conversation which could be discussed, but I was not trying to be exhaustive. Instead, I have tried to show how different topics of conversation will impact your readers' experience of your story -- how they can intensify the reading experience or relax it. The experience you wish to give your readers, however, is up to you and your story.
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.