The Skill List Project: Dialogue Purpose

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, we began looking at dialogue, covering a few preliminaries about punctuation, realism, and different perspectives on what constitutes “good” dialogue. This time, we’re going to look at when to write dialogue, and what it’s for.

Phatic and Non-Phatic Communions

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski invented the term “phatic communion” to refer to talk whose purpose was purely social: “Hi, how’s it going, what’s new with you?” Most of us have plenty of phatic conversations; this is easy to recognize when we’re talking about the weather or TV, but it also applies to many conversations about books, politics, the kids, and that article we just read in Scientific American. It doesn’t matter if the conversation’s topic seems weighty—if we’re not digging but just talking for the sake of talking, it’s phatic.

There’s nothing wrong with phatic communion; social bonding is important. But fiction can’t afford empty calories: meaningful stuff has to be happening all the time. Dialogue may become meaningful by contributing to plot, characterization, mood, or some other important quality, but it has to be doing something.

So whenever you start writing a passage of dialogue, you have to ask, “What are these people trying to accomplish in this conversation?” If no one has an agenda, the conversation is merely phatic…and even though real life contains lots of phatic communion, in fiction it’s a waste of space. At least one of the conversation’s participants must be pursuing this conversation for a reason. Typically, the other participants will also have agendas, if only in reaction to whatever the first person is trying to do.

Here’s a classic example: a detective questions a witness in order to obtain information. This is non-phatic; the detective has a clear agenda, and readers understand how the conversation is aimed at moving the story forward. Bear in mind, however, that the witness likely has an agenda too. One type of witness may be guilty and want to say as little as possible; another type might be willing to tell everything except for one tiny detail that he or she doesn’t want to admit; a third might be so eager to help that he/she will say anything the detective wants to hear; a fourth may have a migraine and just want to be left alone.

In all these cases, the clash of agendas can make for an interesting scene. (I’ll remind readers of this post on scene design, where we discussed how scenes depend on conflict.) If there isn’t a clash of some kind, there’s no reason to spend time on significant dialogue. You can just summarize the results rather than quoting verbatim:

I found a witness who said the car was a gray Camry, likely a 2008 or 2009…and since the guy was a used-car salesman, I was inclined to believe him. (Hmm, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.)

This illustrates a simple point: don’t create a passage of dialogue unless you have a good reason. Dialogue is almost always wordy—it takes more words to deliver information in dialogue than in non-dialogue form. Only use dialogue when it provides more value than straight narration.

The Value of Dialogue

So what values can dialogue provide? Let me list a few:

  • Characterization: In real life, talking to people is the #1 way of getting to know them. In fiction, the way people talk is equally important for letting readers gain an understanding of characters. Are the characters clever, pedantic, sly, aggressive, thick-headed, honest, or hard to read? All these things can and should come out in the words your characters use and the way they put sentences together. Dialogue shows us who your characters are…or perhaps who they’re pretending to be. (I have lots more to say on this subject, but I’ll leave it for a future post.)
  • Emotion: Not only does dialogue show us someone’s overall character, it shows (or at least hints at) a character’s current emotional state. Angry people talk differently than calm folk; you say different things when you’re happy than when you’re sad. Sometimes this is subtle, and sometimes it isn’t—that in itself reveals quite a bit about the nature of the emotion. (Controlled anger is a different thing than a complete tantrum…and it makes for a different scene.) If you find yourself forced to do exposition, having a character do so in an emotional outburst can salvage an otherwise ho-hum scene. Suppose, for example, readers need to be informed about something that happened twenty years ago. You could have a dispassionate historian lay it all out, or you could put the explanation into the mouth of a character who’s still traumatized from those events. Which is going to grab your readers more?
  • Humor: Like emotional dialogue, humorous dialogue can add life to a too-tame scene. For example, consider a “Let’s make a plan” scene where your characters discuss how to deal with some difficulty. This sort of scene has to show how the characters work and think together; often, it also has to hint at future plot elements without giving away too many secrets. Emotion may or may not be appropriate in this context. If you want your characters to be at each other’s throats, fair enough…but if you want them to work effectively together, then how can you give the scene spice when you want to avoid too much conflict? Humor can make it work. If the group can approach the problem in a lighthearted way, or if there’s some petty irritant that gives the group something to be witty about, you can sail through the scene even if the actual details of the plan are mundane. This trick is the heart of every caper movie, and it works just as well on the page.
  • Changes in Relationships: “I don’t love you anymore. It’s time we went our separate ways.” Characters go through arcs, and relationships change. Once in a while, such changes may take place when the characters aren’t together—if, for example, character X privately discovers some terrible truth about character Y—but more often, changes happen face to face. Consider Juliet on her balcony, admitting to herself that she loves Romeo. That admission moves the plot forward a little…but the action really takes off when Romeo climbs up and joins her. A face-to-face dialogue is an indispensable way to present a change of relationship, and to confirm exactly how things have changed. If Romeo just sent a note and Juliet read it to herself, the impact would be much lessened. Presenting pivotal changes in face-to-face dialogue scenes adds more drama and makes sure you don’t cheat your readers.
  • Concealment: Dialogue is a great way of hiding clues and planting subtle hints. Conversations have momentum, and this makes it easy to brush past significant details without examining them—your characters just follow the conversational thread and end up talking about something else. It happens in mysteries all the time: speaker X tosses off a side remark that might have important implications, but speaker Y latches onto something else in the same sentence and takes the conversation in a different direction. No one, including the reader, remembers to come back to that leading remark…until much later in the book, when it suddenly takes on vital significance. (Dialogue also helps you mislead the reader without “cheating”. If you say something in ordinary narration, readers generally feel justified in taking it as “true”…ignoring the possibility that your narrator may be unreliable. But when a “fact” is given in dialogue, readers have to acknowledge that the speaker may be lying or mistaken.)
  • Color: Finally, dialogue may simply be a more interesting way to develop a scene than “unspoken” description. Imagine the canonical science fiction scene where the Great Scientist shows off his/her new invention. You could present this without any direct speech, just having the scientist throw levers and turn dials, then describing what happens as a result. But having the scientist give a running commentary, with questions and snide comments from observers, can add greatly to the scene. It turns straight description into an interactive performance: more fun and more memorable.

These are just a few reasons why the use of dialogue can give extra value to a scene, and can justify the extra words that dialogue almost always adds. Even so, you should remember what was said at the start of this post: dialogue should do something, it shouldn’t just be chat.

“Good-bye,” He Said

That’s it for this time. Next month, we’ll get down to the skill of actually writing dialogue, including the use/abuse of said-bookisms and “she said enthusiastically” adverbs. (Oooo, scary stuff.) In the meantime, comment away!

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There are 3 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Phatic conversation may be extremely useful as an indicator that characters are desperately waiting for something. Or have something they can’t manage to say.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    This illustrates a simple point: don’t create a passage of dialogue unless you have a good reason.

    Interestingly, we’ve faced the opposite situation in an RPG my husband and I are playing in. It’s with a new group — not people we’re used to gaming with — and we’ve had to push for the GM to actually play things out in dialogue, rather than turning everything into a summary of what gets said.

    But it’s for the same reasons you outline here: we want characterization and emotion and all the rest of it, which we don’t get in summary versions.

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James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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