Rhythm and Time – Part 3: Dialogue
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It’s a good thing my mother never reads these columns, because I have to confess something that would make her question her child-raising abilities: I’m a shameless eavesdropper. I love dialogue. I love listening to people—accents, language, conversations, tones, on and on. And nothing makes me happier than a book filled with witty, engaging, natural dialogue.
Good dialogue is vital to creating a compelling story. Even if you aren’t a dialogue hound like I am, you still need to create realistic and believable dialogue that develops your characters and plot and sounds natural to the reader.
In keeping with my ongoing music metaphor, I wanted to give dialogue a nice, tidy classification. I called verbs our bass and adjectives our harmony, but nothing seemed quite right when I thought about dialogue. Dialogue can be the rhythm section—a consistent, periodic beat that accompanies the melody—just as easily as it could be the alto line that runs in tandem with the soprano to create melody. What makes the difference?
The Rhythm of Dialogue
I think there are two aspects of dialogue that matter when discussing how to contribute to the rhythm and time of your work. The first is to consider where and how often to use dialogue in your story.
I don’t think there’s any right amount of dialogue. Despite my affection for good dialogue, I’ve enjoyed a lot of stories that were very light on dialogue and heavy on exposition. I do tend to be drawn toward more dialogue-heavy stories—as long as the dialogue is good.
Some authors seem to prefer to tell story through dialogue. I also think that the influence of movies and TV might be contributing to a slow drift toward more dialogue-heavy stories. We’re all very used to experiencing story through visual and auditory avenues, which are necessarily heavy on dialogue.
Effective and Ineffective Dialogue
But no matter how much dialogue you intend to use in your stories, it’s worth thinking about how to use it for the best impact. A cymbal can have a great impact in a symphony, but only when it’s used in the proper place will it be a good impact. Here are some ways I think dialogue is most effective.
– Use it to break up long narrative passages or exposition. No one wants to read pages and pages of narrative without some kind of break. Dialogue can do that for you, even if it’s as simple as an exchange between a wandering bard and a tavern maid.
– Use dialogue to give your reader a breather after intense action. The short, stilted utterances of a character under duress are going to be different from a character who’s processing what he or she just went through. When everyone is safe, let the reader breathe by giving the characters time to talk for a few minutes.
– Or, use dialogue to create suspense. There are a couple of ways to do this. Leave the action hanging and cut to other characters who are discussing other events, or create suspense through the dialogue itself with threats, intimidation, or suggestion.
– Use dialogue to build character. Your character doesn’t have to have an accent to have a distinct character. Use dialogue to show what the character hides and reveals to others. I had great fun doing this with my character Igraine from Ravenmarked. The bad temper she showed to the world masked her private insecurities and secrets that I revealed through internal dialogue and narrative.
For all the effective ways to use dialogue, though, there are also some really ineffective ways as well.
– The “as you know, Bob” syndrome. Using dialogue to reveal some information is necessary, but when it turns into a constant “as you know” between two characters, it’s stilted and unnatural. I think we’ve all been scared away from telling our stories through exposition, but really, putting necessary information in a paragraph of exposition is far preferable to dialogue if the two characters wouldn’t need to exchange that information.
– The rambling conversation to nowhere. I think this is a trap that dialogue hounds can fall into. I know I do. In real life, we all have rambling conversations that go nowhere, but in story, those conversations get dull and confusing. Dialogue should serve the story in the same way as any other story element: Drive plot, develop characters, or describe setting.
– Dialogue to the exclusion of action, exposition, or other narrative elements. Pages and pages and pages and pages of dialogue, all of it in the most excruciating detail, is not a story. It’s a transcript. It’s okay to be dialogue-heavy, but eventually, something has to happen. You need some action, some backstory, some exposition—something besides just people sitting around talking.
The rhythm you develop of action, dialogue, exposition, and backstory depends a lot on your own style. Maybe your work ends up in a fairly predictable pattern that alternates through these various elements, or maybe you like to drop dialogue into unexpected places where it will have strong impact. It’s not unlike musical genres—some of us write symphony, some of us write bluegrass, and some of us write rap. Whatever your own style, develop it intentionally, using dialogue to bring the right kind of punctuation to the rest of your story.
In two weeks, I’ll talk about the second aspect of rhythm and dialogue—the rhythm of speech.