Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A few words on dialogue

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While every novelist should strive to be a perfect writing machine, equally at home in all aspects of the craft, there’s no doubt that every writer has particular weaknesses. For me, at least to my own ears, it’s dialogue. Dialogue in my novels and short stories tends to be purely functional, and while I do my best to make it natural, clear, and concise, I doubt I’ll ever be able to write dialogue like James M. Cain. Yet I find myself writing dialogue all the time: it’s still the most economical way of advancing a story, and since it’s so central to the suspense genre, I’m constantly striving to make my own efforts more readable and appealing. And while the best way to write good dialogue is to study the novelists or dramatists whose work you admire (my own favorites include Cain, Updike, and, in small doses, Mamet), I can still suggest a few general guidelines.

The first point to remember is that dialogue is like any other aspect of fiction: it’s only meaningful as a part of the whole. If a clever line draws attention to itself at the expense of the fictional dream, it probably needs to be cut. Samuel Johnson’s famous advice—”Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”—applies doubly so to dialogue, where an awkward or precious exchange can pull the reader out of the story immediately. This is true of even very good novels, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the dialogue, especially between male characters, occasionally strays into preciousness, and it can particularly be a problem in genre fiction, where writers sometimes feel the need to fill the entire page with banter. A page of nondescript but serviceable dialogue is always better than a page of clanging repartee.

Another point is that dialogue doesn’t need to be realistic in order to read well, or to serve its purpose within the story. On the most basic level, nearly all fictional conversations need to be more direct and concise than the way we talk in real life: characters in a novel tend to be very good at getting directly to the point. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a book like Foucault’s Pendulum is full of conversations and dialogue that, with their density of allusion and information, could never occur in real life, which strikes me as perfectly fine (though Salman Rushdie would disagree). Still, this is a slippery slope: I find the endless expository passages in Dan Brown’s novels unbearable, for instance, and since thrillers are especially prone to this sort of thing, I’m constantly working to make sure that my own fiction doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

In the end, every writer finds rhythms of dialogue that work within the context of the story, which is the only context that matters. And a writer shouldn’t hesitate to violate conventions of accuracy or realism in the pursuit of greater clarity. Writing dialogue for characters speaking in a foreign language, for instance, often requires navigating the requirements of clarity and plausibility at the cost of technical accuracy. I’ve always loved Eco’s description of how he approached this problem in The Name of the Rose, much of which is in Latin:

I have eliminated excesses, but I have retained a certain amount. And I fear that I have imitated those bad novelists who, introducing a French character, make him exclaim “Parbleu!” and “La femme, ah! la femme!”

All the same, a certain amount of artificiality is sometimes necessary. Critics have pointed out that much of the dialogue in For Whom The Bell Tolls, which purports to render Spanish conversations in English, actually results in nonsense when translated back into Spanish: Hemingway wasn’t going for literal fidelity, but a formal, archaic tone appropriate to the mood he’s trying to create. The needs of the story, in other words, trump everything else. Which is exactly how it should be.

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2011 at 10:10 am

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