There’s a writer I know who always pens the perfect dialogue. His characters can banter with all the snap and speed of a table tennis tourney, their chatters’ cadence a direct reflection of the intensity of the situation, or in its languor, its lack thereof. Dialogue can paint a vivid portrait of a character’s personality, revealing the level of intimacy between the protagonists, or recreate a historical era with its manner of speech and choice of words. Dialogue, in and of itself, can be your book’s barometer, setting the mood through the characters’ zingers, laments, opines and asides. Prose would be decided dry and lumbering without it, relegating readers to trudge through page upon page of telling not showing, its characters never really coming alive. Knowing this, I think we could all agree attention to dialogue is essential to good writing. But so is too much attention, which is what new writers often can’t see.
There comes a time in every professional writer’s life when the work ceases being written and thus becomes read. From the time it leaves the desk and goes before a beta-reader or an editor, it begins to exist on its own, without the aid of its creator’s vision. What the reader sees is exactly what the writer has put forth, but if what they’re seeing becomes skewed in the transmission, then it’s not the reader’s fault if they don’t “get it.” Dialogue, as stated above, is a wonderfully descriptive vehicle to transport your story along. But if you’re only saying so much outloud then finishing the balance of the information in your head, you’re not getting your character’s message–or your vision–across to your readers.
New writers often have fabulous stories in their heads, but fail when getting them to the page. Often, this mistake shows itself in dialogue, as the characters will say things colored by insider information obvious to the writer, but not so much to the reader. This happens when the writer is so close to the story they unconsciously fill in the missing information. When this happens, try closing your eyes to take a look at the scene, then write what you’re seeing beyond what the characters are saying. When your hero says, “Feeling a bit depressed today?” Don’t wait for the heroine to simply say “Yes,” before the hero rambles on. Imagine the scene from his point of view. Let us see her with her head in her hands. Let us feel her tremble under his touch as she breaks into tears. Do we hear the ocean rumbling below as they stand on the cliff, taste the salt in their mouths? Dialogue’s essential, but if you’re not giving us the complete picture, you’re only getting half your story on the page.
Years ago, ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” after some complaints about all the yak going on during the games, dropped their color commentators from the night’s telecast, simply showing the game with the score on the screen. The experiment was a rousing failure, as the game lost its sense of immediacy, its excitement, its human quality. Dialogue in our writing works the same way, but only when we’re adding the complete picture, by coloring inside the lines. If we don’t, we’re left with just a line drawing, a one-dimensional outline with no substance or depth, a yadda yadda yadda of sound and fury, signifying a lot more work to do!