Tuesday, February 05, 2008

You Don't Say

Lori G. Armstrong, author of the Julie Collins P.I. series, blogged:

I stumbled across a review the other day where the reviewer lamented the preponderance of dialogue in a book. Then the reviewer went on to say that writing a dialogue heavy book made it a simplistic book, an easy read, a lazy effort, an uncomplicated plotline because everyone knows it's the character's inner monologue and descriptions of setting and scene which truly makes a book -- and the characters -- come alive through description, not action...

I think dialogue is incredibly hard to write -- and very hard to write well. Trying to make it read like a conversation, not an info dump, not loading it with tons of dialogue tags which add weight but no meaning, making it a scene that leads to action or carries action. Or using it as an external reveal for the character speaking to make his or her thoughts a public, rather than a private realization, to the reader and the other characters in the scene is difficult to pull off not just once, but throughout the whole of the book...

Do you think the whole 'showing versus telling' school of thought means description, not action, not verbal interplay?

I commented that, to me, dialogue reveals as much character as action does. Unless they are excellent, I tend to skim descriptive passages as a book goes on, but I always pay attention to what characters say. Good dialogue is more showing than straight telling; it has subtext where internal monologue and omniscient narration do not.

I agree with Lori about balance. Tags shouldn't be over- or underused. Dialogue shouldn't repeat information revealed in internal monologue, and internal monologue shouldn't disrupt the flow of dialogue.

Here's an example of disruption:

"I'm leaving you," she said.

What did she mean? "Come again?" I said.

"Are you really surprised?"

I guessed not. "No..."

Lori asked about writers in any genre who write good dialogue. Robert B. Parker used to be good, but I think he's gotten used to the way his stock characters talk and doesn't have a good sense of how people talk today. While it's true that characters' dialogue has to flow more smoothly than real talk does, dialogue should have the ring of real talk, as if you might say it if you were in the character's situation.

1 comment:

Graham Powell said...

My opinion on tags: if you have to say, "he said grimly" then the dialog needs to be written until it's obvious from his words that he's pretty grim.

Whoever the critic was really said "come alive through description"? In my opinion, characters reveal themselves through what they say and what they do. Description may lend itself to "fine writing" but it violates my Prime Directive: don't be boring.