Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Dialogue in Fiction – Where Talk isn’t Cheap

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by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

Like setting, dialogue is an indispensable and multitasking tool of fiction that helps us accomplish multiple aims at once. It illuminates aspects of character, because the way someone speaks provides clues about origin, social status, mood, and so on. It is a way in which we create voice. It also advances plot while allowing us to show things happening instead of merely telling about them.

Types of Dialogue

Fictional dialogue comes in three main forms (not counting interior self-talk/monologue, which deserves a separate post):

  • Summarized speech, whereby we learn through narration that some discussion has taken place: When he came home that night, she told him the dog had run away.
  • Indirect speech, in which quotation marks are not used, but we still get a sense of the exchange. She didn’t seem too sad about this turn of events, he noted. What was wrong with her: why was she so goddamned heartless?
  • Direct speech, which is what we most readily associate with the term “dialogue”. It appears between quotation marks that suggest we’re hearing exactly what was said. “That’s convenient, Marge. You’ve never liked the dog, and now he goes missing.

Stylistic and practical considerations help us decide which type to use when. Summarized speech is an efficient way to condense conversations and information that we don’t want to dwell on. Indirect speech also helps cut to the heart of the matter, but it does so while imparting more flavour. And generally when there is important action occurring as a result of dialogue, we’ll want to use quotation marks (this is only a guideline, though!). The three types of dialogue can also be blended together within paragraphs or scenes. Consider this excerpt from Alice Munro’s story “Five Points”:

“That’s all just tourist shit,” Neil says. “About half the place is nothing but tourist shit. That’s not where I’m talking about.”

He is talking about Five Points, which was—is—a section, or maybe just a corner, of the city, where there was a school and a drugstore and a Chinese grocery and a candy store. When Neil was in public school, the candy store was run by a grouchy old woman with painted on eyebrows…after she died, some new people, Europeans, not Poles or Czechs but from some smaller country—Croatia; is that a country?—took over the candy store and changed it.

Note how the passage contains words quoted directly from Neil’s mouth, a summary of his subject by the narrator, as well as indirect dialogue capturing his way of speaking (“Croatia; is that a country?”).

What we talk about when we talk about subtext

“Subtext” is a term often associated with dialogue in fiction. It can seem a confusing and nebulous matter, but what it boils down to is this: fiction often aims to mirror real life, and in real life people have all kinds of discussions that aren’t actually about what they seem to be about. In other words, people often don’t say what they mean, but approach subjects indirectly. Imagine, for instance, two elderly characters having a conversation. One of them is terminally ill, but instead of being able to confront and discuss this fact, they instead have an agonized exchange about purging a storage closet.

Further things to consider

Should fictional dialogue mirror its real-world counterpart to the greatest extent possible? Some writers believe so, and pepper their dialogue with lots of “ums”, “uhs” and ellipses. This is a valid stylistic choice, but one caveat is that it may be tiring to read. Typically, in much of the fiction we consume, we’re used to having speech tidied up to some extent. Fictional characters usually don’t pause, stumble, or ramble quite as much as in real life, unless these tendencies are being used to illustrate something meaningful about their character. We might also want to give their speech rhythm (ADD LINK).

A few more suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Dialogue, like fiction in general, is compelling when it contains conflict, when characters are at odds or something is getting in the way of someone’s desire. It’s fun to read about people trying to convince, deceive or seduce each other.
  • Specific dialogue containing concrete details tends to be more interesting than that which is broad or vague. Think of the times that you’ve been unable to stop yourself from eavesdropping on strangers. Likely the conversational fodder was “juicy,” which is to say colourful and rich in detail.
  • To avoid breaking the flow of a conversation, in most cases dialogue tags should be kept simple. While it can be tempting to add flavour and specificity with tags like “Bette whined,” “Jake gasped,” or “Amy snarled,” these descriptors may become stumbling blocks for the reader, whereas the standard “said” tends to become invisible. It’s also a fine choice to omit dialogue tags altogether in cases where it would be clear who is speaking without them.
  • Try to avoid adverbs in tagging dialogue: adding “she said angrily” after the line “I never want to see your face again!” is unnecessary. In general, it’s good to let characters’ words do the talking. If it’s not obvious how a character is feeling, it’s better to show an action than to use a modifier.
  • It’s best to keep exposition out of dialogue: when characters reveal information to each other that they already know for the benefit of the reader, they begin to sound like authorial puppets.

As an exercise…

Try to record some real-life dialogue verbatim, and think about how you would alter it for fiction. Where would the dialogue tags go? Does it contain enough conflict and interesting detail, or can these be jazzed up? Then experiment with rendering the conversation, or various parts of it, as direct, indirect and summarized speech.

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