Sometimes people can’t wait to speak. Sometimes they’d almost rather die than speak. Sometimes people don’t say what they mean. Sometimes they don’t mean what they say.
All of this makes dialogue stimulating to read – and challenging to write. But it’s well worth mastering the craft, because characters, like real people, reveal a lot about themselves by what they say and how they say it.
In fiction, dialogue is the only instance when there’s no barrier between reader and character, no interface of the author-narrator giving description and explanation. There’s just the character, virtually naked, revealing themselves by their words. That’s why readers respond intensely to dialogue, and why so many popular novels rely heavily on dialogue. It feels alive.
Actors have a name for the meaning beneath a character’s words: subtext. Subtext is what a character really means, which can be contrary to what they say. Look at the phrase, “I love you.” What does a person really mean when they say, “I love you”? The subtext could be any one of the following: Forgive me. / I wish I didn’t love you. / Don’t leave me. / You’re lucky to have me. / Stop nagging me. / I forgive you. (Or a hundred other meanings.)
In Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar he talks about subtext in the film “Casablanca.” There’s the famous scene in which Ilsa first comes into Rick’s café with her husband. Rick and Ilsa were once lovers, but her husband doesn’t know it. McKee says: “For Rick and Ilsa the text is cocktail chatter; the subtext is molten passion.”
Inexperienced writers of fiction often make the mistake of writing subtext as dialogue. They’ll have characters say exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. This is called writing “on the nose.” It’s heavy-handed, and does nothing to reveal deep character.
For example, imagine Casablanca as a novel in which the writer put Rick’s tortured feelings into dialogue: “I can’t bear it, Ilsa. I hate you but I still love you, and I want you so bad it’s killing me.” Sounds unrealistic and melodramatic, doesn’t it? The lesson is: don’t force subtext into dialogue. Put it into narration, or leave it out and let the reader infer it.
He Said, She Said
Another snare is dialogue attribution, the “he said” or “she said” that indicates which character is speaking. An inexperienced writer will often use an extravagant verb, believing it helps the reader hear the character’s tone of voice. “Go to hell,” he raged. “Stop,” she hissed. “Ah,” he prevaricated. Such overwrought verbs call attention to themselves instead of to the character. Trust that readers will know how your characters are speaking because they know the characters and the situation.
My advice for dialogue attribution is: stick to “said” and “asked,” with the occasional use of a nuanced variation like “explained.” Here’s the advice of Elmore Leonard, author of many bestsellers and a master of dialogue: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the author sticking his nose in … I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”
Just The Facts, Ma’am
The cardinal sin is using dialogue to deliver exposition – factual information the reader needs to be told. Tom Clancy wannabes tend to err here.
This kind of thing: a scientist tells a colleague about the project they’ve been working on together. “As you’re aware, John, it’s imperative that we find the XR5 submarine before those nuclear warheads – the ones we know are aimed at San Francisco – get into the hands of the Green Crescent. You know, that Arab suicide bomber cell that killed your wife and kids last Christmas.” Avoid this.
Dialogue is as fragile as breath. It cannot be expected to carry the heavy weight of exposition. Put exposition onto the broad shoulders of narration.
Gestures are a living part of dialogue. Sometimes, instead of answering we look away. By punctuating dialogue with body language you can reveal some of a character’s feelings. A woman fidgets with her wedding ring. A man rakes his hand through his hair. A girl covers her mouth to hide a smile. Such gestures also give rhythm to a scene, filling the silences between the characters’ spoken lines.
As a writer, listen to people. Watch people. Hear what’s unsaid. As Henry James wrote, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”
This article is condensed from Barbara Kyle’s series of online workshops, “Writing Fiction That Sells.” Watch a clip.