Dialogue – among many other things – has been on my mind recently as I struggle to edit my NaNoWriMo effort.
We’re always told that dialogue moves the plot along and develops character better than narrative. That’s quite true. After all, fiction is about people and, unless you are very good at interior monologue (à la Alan Bennett or Kate Atkinson), dialogue is essential. But what dialogue?
If we think of the exchanges that characterise our daily lives, they really aren’t very interesting to other people:
“How was your day?”
“So-so. Did you take the chicken out of the freezer?”
“Yes, it should be defrosted by now.”
“Could you turn the oven on to 200? I’ll just go and change.”
See what I mean? If that were a novel, you’d have died of boredom by now - unless the unfrozen chicken turned into a vampire or a burglar/spy/terrorist leapt through the French windows and held them at gunpoint.
In my own novel I have been trying to find the right voice in the dialogue. Should you make historical fiction – as mine is – sound a bit archaic? Or is it better to make people speak in present-day diction? So, should you include contractions – “I don’t think you’d better do that” – or shouldn’t you – “I do not think you had better do that”? The former sounds better because that’s what we’re used to. Can you expect modern readers to accept more formal dialogue? Where do you draw the line?
Similarly, how should you present dialogue in fiction that’s set in a country where they speak a different language? I am reading a novel set in France – for various reasons I’d better not say which one – and often find myself questioning the authenticity of the dialogue. Although the novel is written in English, the author clearly wants the protagonists to sound French. In doing so, he just makes the language sound stilted. It’s almost as if the novel had been translated – rather badly – from French into English. The author would have done better to render it into everyday English as it’s spoken in the UK.
And what about speech tags? I have learned that it’s best to keep them simple – “He/she said” or “He/she asked”. But you see authors using all sorts of bizarre constructions to describe speech: “she averred”; “he ejaculated” (!); “she postulated”. These examples all come from published novels. What was the editor doing? Or did he/she just want to give the reader a good laugh?
I am beginning to realise that the best dialogue requires the least effort on the part of the reader. A good way to test authenticity is to read dialogue out loud. Since I share an office with my husband, this is not always easy. However, if you can’t imagine yourself, or people you know, saying it like that, then there’s probably something wrong. This has been a great step forward in the editing process for my novel.
Listening to how people really do talk is also a good way of making your fictional dialogue more authentic. I am a great one for eavesdropping in shops and restaurants. But, again, you have to elide the ums, ers, you knows, because they just don’t make people want to read on. You have to gild reality with the fairy dust of fiction.
I typed “writing dialogue” into Google and got 194,000 results. No, I didn’t wade through them all but I found some useful tips here:
What tips do you have for making dialogue sound authentic and believable but interesting?