Writing believable dialogue in fiction has been a topic very much on my mind lately, and not only because it’s the Wicked Writers’ topic of the week.
In the past few years, I always thought writing dialogue was the easiest part of putting a novel together. Character A meets Character B at Location X and tells him/her Important Information Z. Simple. I invested much more time crafting plot lines, researching the accuracy of my settings, and so on. But now as I revise, I’ve discovered the trickiest element to get right is the one I gave least thought to.
One reason I may have downplayed the importance of dialogue is that many novels I love use it either sparingly or in between long passages of narrative (that is, non-dialogue). Middlesex, Water for Elephants, Life of Pi, and Poisonwood Bible are all contemportary novels that stuck with me long after I finished the last page.
I just finished reading a suspense novel recommended by one of our Wicked Writers followers, Suzanne Adair (thanks!): A Trace of Smoke. It’s an excellent example of a book that strikes the right balance between strong dialogue and a cinematic narrative style, evoking crisp images of Berlin in the turbulent year of 1931. (If you’re interested in other recommendations, please check out more of my favorite books on www.goodreads.com.)
However minimal dialogue appears within a piece, I’m discovering that it’s the engine that moves along any narrative. In recently editing and critiquing other writers’ works of fiction, I find that nowadays I’m often tempted to put down any book that relies mostly on large blocks of narrative to tell a story (or backstory). I need to understand the characters and hear their voices, not just learn details about their past. And as Greg pointed out in his post yesterday, these voices need to impart more than simply their words but give me a sense of who they are and what they're all about.
I’ve found that editing for a living, and now with a new eye on dialogue, has helped me to see the spots in my own writing that need tweaking. It comes almost second nature to me, when I see other writers insert three or four blocks of consecutive descriptive passages, to suggest, “break this passage up with some dialogue.”
Trying to apply that advice to my own work has been quite an eye-opener, to say the least. I can now understand the oft-heard lament of, “I had to skip those parts and jump right to the action.” Isn’t that what dialogue is in most stories—the action and interchange we all seek?