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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Writing Life: Be Cheap with Your Dialogue

The other day I commented on a LinkedIN discussion thread, where a writer recommended to (I can only imagine) inexperienced writers that dialogue should be paramount to a story. Something on the ratio of 70% dialogue to 30% narrative, is how she broke it down. Further, she relegated narrative as “boring” and likely to “drive readers away,” while dialogue will tell story more effectively and move the story along. She also suggested that writers should rewrite narrative passages into dialogue-driven “story.” I think she is wrong on several grounds.


Here’s my take on the uses of dialogue:


While dialogue is important to establish character and, yes, to move story forward, by putting dialogue in front of narrative, as a rule, does two harms. Firstly, dialogue that is used in place of narrative usually rings false because the “information” (i.e., setting, description, and story narrative) we otherwise get in the narrative is often already known or should be known by the characters. Or, the narrative is important history of these characters (or place or the characters themselves) and cannot be fudged into dialogue. Or else such dialogue leaves the reader curious about “what” is happening and “why” it has happened.


An example of a bad dialogue story (80%+ dialogue-to-narrative ratio) can be found in Ethan Hawke’s “The Hottest State” — where we get the story (what little there is) from characters who merely walk around (and talk) or sit somewhere (and talk). The effect of this type of story is that seldom does the reader understand where the hell this scene is taking place, or when (night or day?), or how (where did these people come from; how did they get there; what the hell is happening outside their immediate environment?). In other words, the story lacks the narrative “thread” that holds together character with “the story behind, or of, the character.”


It ceases to be “narrative fiction” and is otherwise a theater playscript or film script. The difference is in technique of storytelling, naturally, but lacking story narrative hurts both the characters (they come off wordy and long-winded) and the overall story. At least when you read a play or film script, you get prompts of setting, position, time of day, etc. But plays and scripts are meant to be performed, not read. This is the difference I speak of.


Of course, you can find fiction in which dialogue is made the centerpiece. Philip Roth’s “Deception” is a perfect example (as is Julian Barnes’ “Talking it Over”). There is, by just a cursory look, nearly 90% dialogue. This is intentional, whereby Roth wants to draw you into the purely verbal world of these characters. Setting is implied (or given as dialogue that develops the scene; but never as a simple marker — “Oh, isn’t this hide-away lovers’ hotel perfect!” Blech!).


The reader is immediately drawn in because, despite the lack of narrative (for place, time-span, scene development) the dialogue is both compelling and illustrative of the situation. We don’t need narrative here because these scenes are, at once, intimate and secret, and made to be independent of each other. The story works because we know this going in (or at least within the first five pages; after which we don’t miss narrative, don’t need it, and can find that it gets in the way of these characters who successfully volley their repartee as stage characters are demanded to hold).


Hawke doesn’t assume this same intent. And by not assuming it directly, immediately, he shows his inexperience as a writer and his poor understanding of what makes story work; he’s an actor who has worked with dialogue as a career demand, and now has tried to write a narrative story relying on dialogue to carry its weight. The story fails (partly) through this technique (but otherwise fails because Hawke just isn’t a very good writer with narrative or dialogue). Genre fiction writers often rely on such dialogue-driven techniques, which is my hunch why the writer answering the LinkedIN thread made such a comment; genre fiction that sells a lot of books is often confused with good writing.


What I have found from reading the best writers who wrote during the last century (book-award winners; Nobel Prize recipients), and from my own 30 years’ writing experience, is that the use of dialogue can be most powerful when used for 1) direct interaction between two characters (of course!), and 2) within or between narrative passages, thereby reinforcing the narrative; this use of narrative is spartan, a device (if you will) that energizes the narrative around which the dialogue is found.


John Updike uses this second technique often, and well, in his novel “In the Beauty of the Lilies.” At one point he develops five pages of dialogue to describe a young girl’s upbringing in small-town Delaware, how the family lives on its low income, where she plays, what her dad does to entertain her, what her mother does to instruct her. Central to this narrative development is the movie house in town, and what she remembers of being told about her grandfather, who found refuge in movie houses after his religious faith deserted him. At the end of this narrative we get this dialogue:


“On the walk home, they passed the Roxie, where ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL STARRING DEANNE DURBIN was spelled out on the marquee. ‘Please, Momma,” Essie begged. “I want to go.’


‘But Daddy and I can’t take you,’ her mother told her, in that singing, spaced-out, too-clear voice she used when being a mother. ‘I have to help Grandpa and Grandma in the greenhouse this afternoon, and Daddy and I are going to play cards with Aunt Esther and Uncle Peter this evening while Ama takes care of you and Danny.’ ”


The effect of this small bit of “talking” between mother and daughter is far weightier, more powerful, and says so much more about both Essie and her mother than if (by way of turning most of that narrative into dialogue) Updike had made the characters talk and talk and talk.


Writing dialogue is itself a careful task; the writer wants to effect the speech of THIS and only THIS character, while making the words ring true to any reader. To put so much importance on dialogue, then, to carry a story, is to dilute the power that rich dialogue can create for a story. If the writer doesn’t get that dialogue right, and right every single time, the story fails.

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