Is that dialogue I see before me?

I was called in as a last-minute replacement contest judge — yes, it happens; regularly-scheduled judges drop out all the time – at a time I shall simply designate as recently, so it will not be apparent which contest it is. (But it was really, really recent.) I highly recommend stepping up to judge a contest from time to time; there’s nothing like spending a long weekend with a small mountain of entries to get a very tangible sense of what agency screeners face each and every day.

I refer, of course, to the constant joy of revelation. Oh, and so much repetition that spontaneous combustion starts to seem marginally attractive, just to have some diversion.

I was in a fiction category this time, not my usual donnybrook. Most of the time, I step up for NF categories, because, generally speaking, it’s far harder to find experienced judges for NF. But this time, it was a couple of dozen 15-page (max) novel excerpts. After such a lengthy short chapter orgy, I felt I could not exist another instant on this terrestrial sphere without passing along the following piece of gleaned wisdom:

It is a whole lot easier than one might suspect to bore someone who has just read twenty manuscripts. All your really have to do, should you aspire to it, is to write like everyone else. The easiest way to do this, apparently, is to construct dialogue.

Remember a month or two ago, when I went on a rampage about the drawbacks of the ever-popular dialogue-only scene? (Okay, I could be referring to several different posts here: this is a pet peeve of mine as an editor and as a blogger.) I suggested gently, if memory serves, that such scenes tend to be frowned upon by many professional readers: if you want to make your points entirely through dialogue, the industry wisdom runs, write a play.

Novels, on the other hand, have been known to include such decorative details as character development and environment description. Little things like that. Yet most of us were taught at some point in our writing development that GOOD dialogue should reveal so much about the characters from whose mouths it is ostensibly falling that description is, well, kinda superfluous.

As someone who spent quite a few years teaching, let me let you in on a wee teaching secret: exaggeration is often a very effective way to make a point. You might want to take tutorial truisms with a grain of salt, therefore. As in one that you might purchase at Costco, and a forklift would deliver it to your car.

To put it another way, if you had just finished reading your 1500th 10th-grade story where every character says things angrily, sadly, or scornfully, you might well feel that some extreme measures were called for to reduce the sheer number of adverbs your eyeballs might be forced to scan in future. You might conceivably say tell your students to avoid them like the proverbial plague.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying here: many, many dialogue-only pushers are not motivated merely by a love of spareness, or even a hatred of intra-text description. Much of the time, they are trying to cut down on all of those adverbs – and the tag lines they grace. (You remember tag lines, right? They’re the he said and she exclaimed part of the dialogue. A surprisingly high percentage of the time, most professional readers will tell you, they’re not necessary.)

In running full-tilt from the Scylla of over-reliance upon adverb-laden tag lines, however, many writers run smack into the Charybdis of over-terseness in their dialogue. As in pages at a time where there is nothing but dialogue as far as the eye can see. No softening indications of tone or body language; no indications of the room where the dialogue might conceivably be taking place, or indeed that the conversation is taking place in a tangible location at all; not even a hint that every speaker might not be telling the truth 100% of the time.

Because, of course, in real life, everyone speaks in a monotone while holding perfectly still, standing in a featureless, all-white room while doing it, and says everything that crosses his mind with perfect candor. Can’t throw a cupcake at a single party in North America without hitting someone engaged in THAT type of conversation.

And heavens, does this make contest entries (and submissions) similar! I hate to break anyone’s bubble here, but I have it on pretty good authority that after the fifth or sixth such dialogue scene in a row, the underdeveloped characters in one might conceivably start to seem a heck of a lot like the underdeveloped characters in the next. In fact, it is not at all hard to imagine a situation where such characters might begin to blur together after a while.

I’m not saying that every judge or screener would read so quickly that this would happen, of course. Just the ones with, you know, lives. Think about it: what professional reader has time to take a 15-minute break between reading projects to clear her head?

Actually, I think play-like dialogue in novels has quite a few significant drawbacks, over and above how common it is. First, it encourages the kind of real-life exchanges that, while undoubtedly a reflection of how people speak in authentic situations, is deadly dull on the page. Unless you’re Samuel Beckett (who wrote PLAYS, people!), you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to get the average reader (let alone a professional one) to sit through sterling exchanges on the order of:

Sonia: Is the tea ready?
Simon: Yeah.
Sonia: I had to buy the tea myself today, you know. Didn’t you see the note on the refrigerator?
Simon: No. Isn’t there any sugar?
Sonia: No, there isn’t, because time, in case you haven’t noticed, is not infinitely flexible. I do not have the eight extra hours in the day you seem to think I have, nor do I have jet packs installed in my feet. You, on the other hand, work in a grocery store. Is it too much to ask for you to reach into Aisle 2 from time to time to grab a tin of tea?
Simon: Ah. Good tea.

Second, as I mentioned above, it pushes narrative character development out of dialogue-based scenes, which strikes me as something of a waste of a good scene. Third, such dialogue rests upon the logical fallacy that human beings just blurt out everything relevant about a situation in ordinary dialogue. (I would explain the problem with this, but in the interests of space conservation, I shall instead refer my readers to anyone who has ever had a conversation with an unpleasant boss, a coworker with B.O., a relative with political views different from oneself, or who has ever heard a eulogy or a toast at a wedding. Absolute truthfulness is simply not the norm for human interaction.)

The fourth reason is really a corollary of the third: as a matter of craft, dialogue-only scenes render depicting undercurrents between people, if not impossible, then at least far more difficult than it needs to be. As the Idol agents pointed out, scenes that have more than one thing going on in them are far more eye-catching (and interesting) than those that deal only in the obvious.

Dialogue-only scenes convey the impression that there is precisely nothing going on between the discussants but the subject of the conversation. The reader may well know different from earlier, non-dialogue parts of the book, but within the context of the discussion shown, the speakers have no bodies to speak of, apparently, no emotions worth mentioning, evidently, and no motivations, ulterior or otherwise, that they would not be more than happy to bellow at the nearest bystander.

Personally, I have never been in on such a conversation, but hey, they must exist: recently, I read fifteen of them in a row. I can’t imagine where. Or how recently.

Regardless of whether such conversations do actually occur in real life, or whether you (or your revered writing teachers) are fond of seeing them in print, consider this: is reproducing such an incredibly common writing technique really the best way to make your contest or submission stand out in the crowd?

I leave it up to you to decide. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Is that dialogue I see before me?”

  1. I agree that nothing but dialogue can be pretty boring. Once in awhile, one of the participants needs to cough, scratch, belch, have a drink, etc. I like to include a tag line now and then (and I appreciate) other writers who do as well) so that I know who is saying what. Even with the old rule of a new paragraph for a new speaker, a running, back-and-forth conversation can get confusing after awhile. And if it’s a three or four way conversation, tag lines definitely help!

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