Anyone can put a few words between
two quotations marks; but
by D. J. Herda
Here's a tip you can take to the bank. If you have to describe your character's dialogue to your reader, you're not writing believable dialogue.
Sad but true, and it's all too common a shortcoming in writers of all calibers.
Now, admittedly, different writers handle dialogue differently. That's one of the things that helps to establish a writer's literary voice. It's one of the things that defines his style. But there are effective ways of handling dialogue, and there are ineffective ways. Take a look at this example:
What's wrong with that, you ask? The writer tells us that she screamed and that her voice was shrill. Isn't that merely an example of good descriptive dialogue, of being specific?
Well, it may be specific, but it's not good dialogue--not by a long shot. Why use the word, "shrilly," to get the point across when there's a better, sharper, more effective way of delivering the same message. Take a look at this:
Surprise, surprise. By leaving off the adverb "shrilly" and emphasizing the word "hate" through the use of italics, we've killed two birds with a single deletion. We've economized the writing, and we've strengthened the dialogue. Now, when a reader reads "I hate you!" he gets the message at a glance. In fact, provided there are only two people in the conversation and it's clear who is saying what, you may not need the words, "she screamed," at all, thus strengthening the dialogue even further:
Of course, there are ways to strengthen dialogue without putting words in italics. Take a look at this example:
Short, sweet, and ineffective, pure and simple. Now this:
Wow, totally different words delivering the same message, although the second example does so through the clarity and finality of the words. And there's no awkward explanation needed. Hmmm. You know what? There really is something to this effective dialogue thing.
The Right Stuff
Now, we have not only weak dialogue, but also weak supporting structure in the explanatory sentence following the quote. A sure way to get around those shortcomings?
Do you see how changing a single word--deciding how the speaker's voice is supposed to sound and then using a more powerful verb to communicate that thought to the reader more effectively--improves the dialogue? A word of caution though when using this technique. Use dialogue-defining verbs such as "snarled" sparingly. Use the general word, "said," as the rule-of-thumb and all other verbs as the exception. See how overusing other verbs can end up sounding stilted:
Ouch! Does that sound a bit awkward, as if the writer is just aching to be precise? As if he's hung up on telling the reader more than he needs to know? Uh-huh, I think so, too. Here's a much simpler way of handling the same exchange:
Notice how leaving out most of the attributes helps to move the dialogue along. Assuming the reader knows there are only two people in the conversation--John and Bill--it's pretty easy to guess who said what after the introductory question is attributed to John.
What's that, you ask? What if you have a whole lot of information to get across and don't want to sound as if you're rambling? Check out this example:
Well, there's an easy way around that rambling, disjointed dialogue, too. It's as easy as cutting Mary short, as in this example:
By shortening Mary's dialogue and moving part of what she was feeling out of quotes and into a straight expository sentence, we've made the dialogue crisper and more believable without sacrificing any of the thoughts we wanted to get across--namely, that Mary knew when she wasn't wanted.
I think you get the point. Dialogue has to be crisp, sharp, and pointed to be effective. Once you begin stringing it out in a prolonged effort to drive home all of your thoughts, once you fall into the trap of using adverbs as descriptive modifiers to enhance your dialogue, you've lost game, set, and match.
So, keep your dialogue believable; keep it simple; keep it crisp. You'd be amazed at how far you can go in creating a really strong piece of writing. Make your dialogue ring with the sound of reality, and you'll keep your readers coming back for more.