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What’s more difficult than writing a good story? Writing good dialogue. Dialogue is an essential part of every writer’s arsenal. Get it right and it can do wonders for your novel or short story. Mess it up and it ends up a deadweight dragging the narrative down and taxing the reader’s patience.
I have been agonizing over the quality of the dialogue in the novel I am working on right now. The first draft of my novel was generously peppered with dialogue. When I started work on the second draft, I realized that I had gone overboard. There was too much talk and some of it leads nowhere. So I got rid of a fair bit. Still, I am not happy with what is left on the pages. As I was burning in the seventh circle of writers’ hell, a scriptwriter friend of mine took pity on me and gave me some useful advice. “Read blind,” he said. “Blank out the names of your characters and picture a reader trying to identify them from the lines they speak.” According to my friend this is a foolproof test to find out if the characters I created had authentic, individual voices.
I put myself through the test with mixed results. To my relief, I was convinced that some of the characters in my novel do have distinct voices. Nobody else could put things the way did. Other turned out to be less satisfactory and lacked distinct voices. They sounded too much like each other when they opened their mouths.
I’ve gone back to the drawing board to rewrite their lines. I see sleepless nights ahead. There will be furious pounding of the keyboard and endless cups of coffee consumed to keep me going. I carry on knowing that in the end, nothing is more satisfying than a line that sounds right (to the ear) and feels right (in your heart).
To write convincing dialogue, a writer has to keep her/his ears open all the time. Turn yourself into an aural magnet of sorts. Listen carefully to the way people speak in real life, notice the cadences of their speech and their verbal ticks, the eccentricities of their speech patterns, and the nuances. Hone in on accents – they always come in handy when you are fleshing out fictional characters. File away every human voice you hear when you are out on the streets or riding a crowded subway or roosting in a café. I enjoy sifting through this (mental) archive of sounds when I sit down at my desk. It adds color and character to the lines I write.
Dialogue is a many splendored thing. It breaks up the monotony of long prose passages. It helps to set a scene. It is an excellent devise to build up dramatic tension. Elmore Leonard was a master of this art. The lines his characters speak take the tension up by several notches and keeps the reader hooked to the pages. No reader can walk away from a Leonard story. It you start one, “you gotta finish it.” This is the magic of dialogue at work.
To state the obvious – dialogue should never be about the obvious. To use dialogue to drone on about what is obvious is a surefire way to put the reader to sleep. A good line of dialogue is the key to a character’s inner life. It reveals a person’s motives and desires. It also conceals. Dialogue must spring from this friction between the things that are said and those left unsaid. Aaron Sorkin’s scripts for television dramas (especially the politically charged series, The West Wing) teems with dialogue that is balanced on the knife edge of what is said and left unsaid. The air crackles with tension. The lines bowl you over with their virtuosity. Conversational exchanges between the characters draw you right into the heart of the action.
Dialogue is a powerful tool but it has to be used with care. Too much of a good thing can put off the reader so it’s wise to stick in dialogue on the page only when absolutely necessary. Don’t use it to unleash a piece of longwinded exposition on the reader. Don’t go overboard with clever wordplay – everybody loves a smart one-liner but pages and pages of it is just overkill.
Getting it right is a delicate balancing act. Tread softly. Listen intently. Write with care and precision. Read out the lines you write (to yourself, to friends, to your neighborhood literary critics). If the lines you hear are easy on the ear, know that you’ve got a good thing going.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).