Writing dialogue is hard. Lots of writers have written blogs and advice about how to write dialogue, so why should I say anything different?
Did I just talk myself out of writing a blog post?
One trap for the fledgling writer is writing too much dialogue. “Show, don’t tell!” they are urged. “Dialogue is a good way of revealing exposition and backstories.” So the newbie sits down and reels off page after page of dialogue. The scene degenerates into people talking to each other and not a lot actually happening. Much information is given out but the scene is dull.
One trick I use to prevent this occurring is to add action to the scene. I give the characters something to do while they are talking. it could be something as simple as eating breakfast or catching the bus. They talk as they act, and what they do and how they do it can show us a good deal about them and their reactions to what is going on.
For example, take this witty exchange I just thought up:
“Honestly,” said Sally, “you really annoy me sometimes.”
“Why?” asked Bernard.
“You never help with the cooking.”
“But I can’t cook. And you can.”
“But I need help sometimes. You can help with the basic things.”
“Chopping the vegetables for one thing. “
“Oh, all right. If you insist.”
Not Pulitzer Prize winning material, I’m the first to admit, but it’s been a long day already and I’m not in the mood for doing any better.
I think it’s obvious that, while the above dialogue conveys information, it doesn’t convey it in an interesting way. We could learn a lot more about Sally and Bernard if we give them something to do while they talk.
So let’s rewrite it, putting in some actions, and see what happens:
Sally slipped into her raincoat and glared at Bernard, who was still sitting at the table with his newspaper. “Honestly,” she said, “you really annoy me sometimes.”
“Why?” asked Bernard. He didn’t look up: the sports section was particularly interesting today.
“You never help with the cooking.” Her right arm flailed in a desperate attempt to find the arm hole of the coat.
Bernard pulled his eyes away from the football scores and stared at his wife, who had at last managed to shove her arm into the sleeve. “But I can’t cook. And you can.”
Now the collar of the coat was twisted around. Sighing, Sally removed the entire garment and tried again, more slowly, “But I need help sometimes.”
“And you can help with the basic things,” Sally continued.
“Like what?” He picked up the paper again and flounced it out. The rustle of the page almost drowned out Sally’s reply.
“Chopping the vegetables for one thing.”
“Oh, all right.” He glanced at the page. Manchester United won! He resisted the urge to smile. “If you insist.”
We learn a great deal more about Sally and Bernard in this second writing, where we give them things to do that reflect their moods. Bernard is impatient at being interrupted reading the paper. He’s a football fan. He is probably fairly lazy in other things as well. Sally is going out, maybe to work. Her struggles with the raincoat are a reflection of her frustration with Bernard. The mood of the two people is conveyed through their actions, leaving the words to supply information and give us some idea about how the words might have been said. we also are left with the impression that Bernard will conveniently forget to help with the vegetables next time.
I personally find scenes can easily degenerate into two or more people talking to each other. Page after page of words in quotation marks does not, in my opinion, make for great story-telling. But give your characters actions and much more information can be conveyed. The scene moves on. The actions can contribute to the plot. Exposition is all very well, but something else needs to happen as well. Action.
Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com