You Don’t Say?
by Brad Harper
Dialogue is an ancient Greek stage direction, meaning “action through words.” One of the first critiques I got from an agent, looking at my neatly printed manuscript was “There’s not enough white space,” meaning there was too much narrative description, and not enough dialogue.
Dialogue opens up the tight-knit block of words we are accustomed to in textbooks and allows your story to breathe through verbal exchanges between your characters. Frequent doses of white space make your work less intimidating and helps your reader speed along through your story.
Dialogue is used to accomplish three things: Exposition, to reveal character, and to provoke an action. Let’s look at these in turn.
Exposition. I write historical fiction, so putting my reader into an unknown universe and making them quickly comfortable there requires that I give them a sense of time and place, but without the dreaded “Info Dump.” So how do I do that? I incorporate the information transfer into as graphic a manner as possible. In my first novel, A Knife in the Fog, my heroine, Margaret Harkness, is a female author from a proper middle-class British family temporarily living in Whitechapel to do research on her novels. As she takes my narrator, Arthur Conan Doyle, on a tour of Whitechapel, I interspace her narrative describing the conditions in that neighborhood with Doyle’s own observations, reinforcing her comments while giving the reader strong visual scenes that bring her words to life. By the time they reach their destination, a site where Jack the Ripper killed one of his early victims, the reader is primed for the violence soon to follow.
In one of my early and most difficult scenes, I have Doyle meet with the Scotland Yard Inspector leading the hunt for Jack the Ripper. He has a lot of crucial information I need to slip into the reader’s mind as painlessly as possible so that the rest of the story makes sense. To keep the Inspector from giving my hero a monologue I intersperse questions, requests for clarification, and brief descriptions of the Inspector in various stages of lighting his pipe and sending smoke up to the ceiling, (an example of dialogue provoking action).
Characterization. The vocabulary a character uses needs to be carefully considered. Any character with more than one scene gets a biography of some kind in my story bible, a summary of the major characters and the historical period I can refer to quickly as I work through my story. The words used should befit their education and station in life, and the tone consistent with the situation and their relationship to the person they are talking to.
On that same walking tour Margaret gives a very proper Conan Doyle, she at one point refers to the streetwalkers using backyards and stairwells for a “Four-Penny Knee Trembler,” which so shocks Doyle he nearly comes to a dead halt as they walk through Whitechapel. Margaret’s casual use of the term while otherwise speaking in the proper tone of a lady of her class, tells you much about how she has come to terms with her environment, while Doyle’s reaction tells you much about him as well.
To provoke action. Much of human conversation is conducted nonverbally through facial expressions and body movements. To avoid your dialogue from becoming verbal tennis matches, intersperse them with small actions to give the reader an image to tie to the words, such as my pipe-lighting Inspector.
The action should be consistent with the situation and the character’s motivation at the time, it can’t be random, but with a good imagination you can come up with enough variety to keep the words fresh.
My final comment is not something you’ll see in any books on writing, but something I discovered on my own. I have three main characters in my novel, Doyle, Miss Harkness, and Professor Joseph Bell, the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. I wish I was this clever to begin with, but as I completed my novel I realized that I’d ascribed to each of them one aspect of personality.
Doyle is pure Ego. A proper British gentleman, the peas could not touch the carrots. Bell is Super-Ego. He understood the need for rules, but could see the larger picture, so also knew when the rules should be ignored. Margaret is pure Id. She says what she thinks as soon as she thinks it, and is basically the person it requires two to three stiff drinks for most of us to become. I found that dialogues with the three of them challenging to write, but engaging. Having a third person active in the conversation created an inherent tension and kept my readers engaged, wondering what would happen next.
Try it, and see if it works for you.
By the way, it is a rare thing if a dialogue only reveals character, provides exposition, or provokes an action. A good dialogue usually does all three, thus provoking “actions through words.”
Brad Haper is Board Certified in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, he has conducted over two-hundred autopsies, several of them forensic in nature, and uses his clinical experiences to inform his writing. He has worked as a professional Santa Claus for the past five years at a local theme park. A soft touch, he only threatens those on the Naughty List with burnt cookies.
His writing credits include a short story sold to The Strand and The Sherlock Holmes Magazine of Mystery, as well as his debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, featuring a young Arthur Conan Doyle, Professor Joseph Bell, Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes, and Margaret Harkness. Miss Harkness was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research on her novels featuring the working poor. Together these “Three Musketeers” assist the London Metropolitan Police in the hunt for the man who became known as Jack the Ripper, until he begins hunting them!