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Format Follows Function

How you present your dialogue can go a long way toward
how effective it will be

by D. J. Herda

Dialogue, to misquote Mark Twain, is greatly exaggerated.  It's desirable and even necessary to most stories; yet, setting it up in the wrong format can take a devastating toll on the reader.  Take this example:

"I wanted to tell him that I needed him," Mary told John's mother.  "I wanted him to know that I still cared.  He's the father of my child."  She stifled the urge to cry.  "And even if I can't be with him for the rest of my life, I wanted to tell him that, for my sake and for the sake of little Max, he would always be welcomed in our home.  But when he began running around with that other woman, when he began using drugs and staying away for days and sometimes weeks on end..."  Mary felt the anger welling within her.  "I felt I had to draw the line.  So I did."

Now, that's quite a bit of quoted dialogue to throw at a reader.  It's so much, in fact, that it ends up sounding rambling, disjointed, and unnatural.  Also, interspersing various expository sentences for clarity creates a sense of confusion within the reader.  Is this part of what Mary is saying, or is it something the author added?

Sure, readers want dialogue.  They crave to know what a character said in the character's own words.  But there's a better way of using long blocks of dialogue effectively.  One way is to break up those blocks into shorter, more easily assimilated sections, such as in this example.

"I wanted to tell him that I needed him," Mary told John's mother.  His mother glanced up at her from her knitting.

"Oh?"

"I did.  I wanted him to know that I still cared."

"And why, after all he had done to you, would you still care?"

"Because he's the father of my child."

John's mother shrugged, started to speak, and then stopped short.

Do you get the point?  By breaking up a long, rambling block of dialogue, you can make the scene move along more quickly and more naturally.

But what of those times when you don't want to break the dialogue down, when you don't want to add various asides and responses from another person?  Well, why not place the dialogue into italics, as in this example:

Mary turned to John's mother to explain why she had given up on her husband.

I wanted to tell him that I needed him.  I wanted him to know that I still cared.  He's the father of my child.  And even if I can't be with him for the rest of my life, I wanted to tell him that, for my sake and for the sake of little Max, he would always be welcomed in our home.  But when he began running around with that other woman, when he began using drugs and staying away for days and sometimes weeks on end, I felt I had to draw the line.  So I did.

John's mother said that she understood.  She didn't agree with Mary, but she said she understood.

By placing the long block of dialogue in indented italics, you accomplish the same thing as you did previously but in a format that's easier to read and less confusing for the reader to follow.

Dialogue?  It's mighty tasty stuff in nearly any work of fiction.  But knowing how to use it so that the reader finds it a helpful tool--and not a major stumbling block to the story's flow--can make all the difference in the world.

 


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