“So, what do you want to talk about?”
“I thought we’d talk about dialogue,” I said. “It’s probably the most important fiction technique a writer uses to put the reader immediately into the action.”
“You think it’s more important than description?”
“Maybe not ‘more important’ than,” I said, “but, it’s at least as important. If you can get the voices of your characters into the heads of your readers, they’ll put up with a lot of exposition in the long run.”
My visitor scratched his chin, which was covered with a sparse goatee. He was a slim man, wiry rather than thin, with a large head and a receding hairline. His eyes were an intense blue, glittering with a smoldering intelligence.
“That sounds dubious to me.” A corner of his mouth turned up in a sardonic grin. “What can a reader tell about characters from dialogue?”
“A lot.” I tried not to sound smug. “I’d wager that dialogue ‘shows’ more about a character than ‘telling’ ever can.”
“For instance, rather than write a sentence like ‘Character A was the sort of man who would disagree with someone just to hear the sound of his own voice,’ I might instead write a verbal exchange between the characters to show how Character A acts.”
“You’re taking a swipe at me, aren’t you?”
“If the shoe fits—”
“Forget you, and forget your shoe. You’re trying to say I’m argumentative. Why not just write that? Write ‘Character A is argumentative and has a sparse goatee’?”
“I did write that you have a sparse goatee. That’s telling. But, it’s better to show you’re argumentative. Readers hate to be ‘told’ most things. They’d rather make those decisions for themselves. I could write a sentence like ‘Character B was an ugly man,’ but that’s not as effective as letting the reader form that opinion himself.”
“Of course. Either or.”
“Are you trying to say that I’m ugly?”
“Not at all. That was only an example. I described you as having a goatee and thinning hair. Some might assume that you are ugly, but I didn’t say that. Your tone of voice and your negative attitude may indicate that you are ugly, but that’s not what I said.”
“You are a wily bastard,” my visitor said. “Other than a rudimentary description, you’ve told the reader nothing about me. Yet, from our dialogue, they can make inferences about me.”
“Such as the fact that you’re argumentative, you mean?”
“That makes me seem very two-dimensional, but, yeah, that seems about right. For the purposes of this blog, I am the argumentative half of your personality, right? The evil You, which is why I’m wearing the goatee. It’s either Freudian or Roddenberrian. I’m not sure which.”
“I’d rather go where no man has gone before.”
“You’re a geek. That’s not news.”
He sat down in the only other chair in the room, across from me on the other side of my desk. I kept a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 in the top desk drawer. I considered pulling it out and shooting him, but decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. There would be all sorts of questions, perhaps an inquest or a trial. More trouble than it was worth. He was a figment of my imagination. I’d rather not serve time for killing him.
“Name-calling seems pointless somehow,” I said at last. “Just by talking to me, you’ve made my point, I think. Dialogue is easier to read than inpenetrable blocks of exposition. And yet the reader knows something about both of us from this exchange, I think.”
“You think they’ve noticed that you’ve used little attribution of dialogue other than ‘I/he said’?”
“The goal is for the reader to notice nothing other than the dialogue. Attributions such as ‘he ejaculated’ or ‘he blurted’ draw attention away from the dialogue. That’s not what you’re after. It’s okay to use the attribution ‘he said’ even when the quoted dialogue is in the form of a question. The reader will not notice. I guarantee it. It’s an unspoken agreement between author and reader. Anything that draws attention to the writing will detract from the fictive dream.”
“Is that all you have to say about dialogue?” He had a self-satisfied look on his face, as if he had caught me in a lie.
“No, of course not. Dialogue is where the writer’s ability to act—to lie convincingly—really comes into play. The writer must hear the voice of his characters in his head, which is flirting with insanity.”
“I think you’re doing more than just flirting.”
“Maybe. But I do hear the voices of my characters. I learn to recognize them the same way you learn to recognize the voices of the people you work with, or your family. I respect the argument that all of the ‘voices’ are just facets of my own personality, but—in the context of the fiction—they are real, dammit. And, as you know, I’ve always found this kind of ‘dialogue’ between myself and myself to be cathartic, and instructive. It’s how I iron out plot problems and plow through troublesome writer’s blocks. ”
“You said, ‘as you know,’ which is redundant. If I already know you don’t have to tell me.”
“Point taken. Do you understand the point I’m trying to make, though?”
“I think so,” he said. “Dialogue reads more easily than blocks of exposition. Plus, the information imparted within dialogue seems more real somehow because the reader ‘hears’ it rather than reads it. By implying things within dialogue, you don’t have to work as hard explaining everything to the reader.”
“Wow. Did I say all of that?”
“I don’t know if you said it or not. But that’s what you meant. Right?”
“Right,” I said.
Then I shot him.