January 28, 2010, F posted this question: …what do you do if you have too LITTLE dialogue? I sometimes have to force myself to insert dialogue in a scene…. I’ve heard that there shouldn’t be too much non-dialogue in a piece of writing, because that will turn off readers. But in some scenes there just does NOT seem to be place for it!! Your thoughts?
And the next day, Arya wrote, …I fear I have the same problem as F. And if I do have a moment where dialogue comes natural then I write it where almost every time someone says something I explain what they’re doing: running fingers through their hair, staring out the window, pacing the room, biting their nails, touching someone’s shoulder). Is this a problem or a good thing?
One reason readers like dialogue, which I discuss in Writing Magic, is that it creates white space on the page, because speech paragraphs are usually shorter than descriptive ones. A page with just a single paragraph, for example, looks daunting. You may have seen textbook pages like this. My reaction is, Whoa! I don’t know if I can handle this. But a page with ten paragraphs of mixed dialogue and description looks much friendlier.
You can achieve comforting white space with short paragraphs, a good technique when a character is alone. But when two or more characters are together, there’s a more important reason for them to talk than mere white space. It’s relationships. Put two people together, even briefly, even strangers, and there’s a relationship.
Not all situations lead to dialogue, of course. I grew up in New York City, where people are smooshed together, often more than they like. So in the subway and on the street they frequently guard themselves against contact with silence. But even in crowded New York City, talk erupts surprisingly often. Once, a woman on the subway, out of the blue, couldn’t keep herself from telling my husband that he has a beautiful nose! If a subway train gets stuck between stations, riders may complain to one another. If the delay is prolonged there will certainly be conversation, and sometimes friendships are formed.
Imagine three characters are scaling a wall at night. The enemy is on the other side, and silence is required. No dialogue, but lots of thought, and some of it about the other characters. Take away the enemy, and they will almost certainly talk. Okay, maybe the task is so hard that they have no breath left over for speech. Suppose it isn’t that hard. Suppose it’s a beginner-level wall in a fitness program, but suppose the characters have never met before. They’re just thrown together for this task. Still, each has a personality, and they’re unlikely all to be silent types.
Maybe one is the leader. She’ll likely feel she needs to give some instruction. One is scared. Depending on who he is, he may reveal his fear in dialogue or camouflage it in different dialogue. Or hide it in silent teeth gritting. And maybe one is the silent type and won’t speak unless the leader checks on him. They may not be talking much, but they’ll be talking.
Of course it’s up to you. Don’t let any of them be silent types. The leader may be naturally friendly. Another climber may be given to putting herself down out loud, as in, “There’s no way I’m good enough to climb this wall.” The third may be curious and may have a series of questions for the leader. Or he may be nosy and be angling for dirt about each of his companions.
In most scenes your characters won’t be strangers, and they’ll have feelings about one another and be connected in various ways. If you think about their feelings and what each wants from the others, you are likely to find dialogue inevitable. What a character wants may be a tiny thing. A character may even just want conversation for its own sake. He may looking for reassurance that the other person doesn’t dislike him. He may feel that social convention demands speech and he can’t be silent. He may not be comfortable with silence.
Near the beginning of the mystery I’m working on now, which is in early stages and has no title yet, several of my characters are on the deck of a boat watching a dramatic sunset. The dragon, Masteress Meenore, says,
“Some would call it a portentous sunset,” IT said.
“But rational creatures do not put any faith in auguries. One can deduce nothing from them, and common sense reminds us that no sunset is the same.”
IT – the dragon – starts talking only to show off ITs intelligence. What follows is a discussion of magic. Some characters disagree with IT. There’s a dispute but no real anger. These characters are being sociable, passing time on a boat where the opportunities for action are limited. And they’re debating ideas I want to introduce into the story.
When one person speaks, in fiction and life, another often wants to respond, to agree, disagree, ask for clarification, steer the conversation another way. If you ask yourself what the other characters think and feel about an initial statement, you can open the dialogue floodgates.
Now for Arya’s question: Generally it’s good – terrific! – to include movement along with dialogue if you don’t overdo it. These little acts can reveal character or show where people are physically, and they break up solid dialogue, just as you want to break up solid narrative. The nail biter and the pacer may be anxious at the moment or anxious as a constant state, and the reader will get that. The character who touches the shoulder of another person may be showing dominance or reassurance or demonstrating his touchy-feely nature. My example above would be improved by a little physicality. This would be better:
“Some would call it a portentous sunset.” White smoke rose from ITs nostrils in a wide, lazy spiral.
The reader knows that smoke spirals mean IT’s happy, so information has been revealed. The other advantage is that I can cut “IT said,” which now takes up unnecessary space. We don’t want every dialogue paragraph to be accompanied by a gesture, but many can be. You can always take a few out when you think you’ve gone too far.
Here are two prompts:
The first is to go back to a scene, or more than one, in one of your stories that seems dialogue weak. Think about the characters in the scene and how they feel toward one another, what they want, what their thoughts are, and what their thoughts might move them to say. When one character speaks, see what another might say in response. Put in as much dialogue as you can create. You can delete the excess later.
The second prompt takes us on a hike through beautiful countryside in a national park. No danger is looming. There is no need for the characters to talk, but they do. Try one or more of these possible groups of hikers. In each case, limit the number of talking characters to no more than four. Mix gestures in with the conversation.
• A group of campers and two counselors.
• An elder hostel group with a younger tour guide.
• A family group. You make up the members.
• Participants in a program for troubled teenagers and two counselors.
• Bird watchers.
• Scientists engaged in finding and tagging wolves.
After you’ve written a page, have one of the characters say something that shocks everyone else. Then write another page of dialogue.
Have fun and save what you write!
On another subject, several weeks ago Priyanka asked about writing from the perspective of characters much older than she is. I am weeks from tackling this, but I read an excellent article in yesterday’s (March 2nd) New York Times in the Science section that has bearing on the topic. Priyanka and anyone else who feels uncertain about inventing older characters may find the article helpful. The title is “Old Age, From Youth’s Narrow Prism.” I’m sure you can access it online.