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The Short Story: Writing Dialogue
Dialogue Can and Should:
- Reveal character
- Take the plot forward
- Explain backstory
- Make the page easier to read by breaking up chunks of text
Dialogue is Not Everyday Speech
While skillfully written dialogue replicates speech, it does not really mirror everyday speech. It doesn’t have the digressions and ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ that everyday conversation is usually peppered with.
If fictional dialogue replicated exactly this sort of real life dialogue, the writer would run out of space in the short story and confuse the reader thoroughly with meaningless digressions that have nothing to do with the story.
Says Harry T. Baker in his book, The Contemporary Short Story –
“Good dialogue characterises, advances the action, or explains past action. . .it should admit no superfluities.”
Writers Should Know Their Characters Well
To write effective dialogue, the writer needs to know his characters inside out. How would a certain character express himself? Would he use certain terms? Does he have a favourite expression like “Jump, jump, jump” when he wishes to digress from the topic of conversation?
In Dialogue, Slang Should Be Used Sparingly
A story should be understood universally. For this to happen, the writer should avoid using too much of the slang and phrases typical of the time and the place. In a contemporary story, if a character says things like “ballyhoo”, it shows that he is old.
But how long until the day when no one understands what the term “ballyhoo” (making a big fuss) means?
Cliches in Dialogue
Although writers must avoid cliches in narrative, in dialogue, limited usage is permissible. People do use a lot of clichés when they speak.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
“I worked like a dog today.”
Dialogue Moves the Plot Forward
Dialogue advances the plot when characters tell each other their hopes, joys and anxieties. When they look forward with hope, so does the reader. When they anticipate, so does the reader. Dialogue can thus create the moods of the characters. For example:
“I’m not going there alone!” has a defiant or fearful tone.
“I don’t want to go there alone,” has the ring of sadness.
Read Effective Dialogue
Writers can learn to write effective dialogue by reading effective dialogue. They can also listen carefully to people talking. Not just to people they know, but also to strangers.
Stephen Crane writes wonderful dialogue in his short story, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky. The reader can instantly distinguish one character from another.
"Ever been in a parlour-car before?" he asked, smiling with delight.
"No," she answered; "I never was. It's fine, ain't it?"
Show, Don't Tell
When writers communicate to their readers through dialogue, they are obeying the much talked -of writing rule – “Show, don’t tell.” They are "showing" through the character’s speech. Showing his hopes, fears and joys.
Beginning the Short Story with Dialogue
Many successful stories begin with dialogue that pulls a reader in. Here’s the first sentence from Graham Greene’ short story Across the Bridge:
“They say he’s worth a million,” Lucia said.
Anyone would want to read on. Who is worth a million? Why? How? What could be the consequence?
Jesse Stuart’s story –Rain on Tanyard Hollow begins:
“Don’t kill that snake, Sweeter,” Mammie said.
Is he still going to kill the snake? What if he gets bitten? What if he lets it go? Is it poisonous?
Dialogue As Exposition
Dialogue can explain the past that is not covered in the story.
“I know. I’ve been married once.”
And without having to say in narrative that so and so is so and so’s father (which can sound very awkward in the hands of a beginning writer) dialogue can establish the facts.
“You should listen to him. He’s your father.”
Most of the time, it is better to write "he said", "she said" than to write "he demanded," "she pleaded," "she shouted," "he exclaimed." The fact that a character demands, pleads, shouts or exclaims should be evident by the words spoken and the punctuation.
Indicate Who Speaks Right Away
Readers should know who is speaking as soon as possible – right after the first clause in the sentence. It can be irritating to wait till the end of a sentence or a paragraph to find out who the speaker is.
Some Rules to Remember When Writing Dialogue
When a speaker leaves a thought incomplete, three dots (ellipses) are used at the end of the could - be sentence. If he’s interrupted by someone in mid sentence, a dash indicates the interruption. When alternate characters are speaking, writers should indicate who is speaking after every 5-6 lines of dialogue, as the reader may lose track.
In order to write good dialogue, a writer should avoid replicating everyday speech, use slang sparingly, listen to people speaking, read effective dialogue and know his characters inside out.