As befits a writer of thrillers (with a first novel, Yeager’s Law is out and four more in progress) Texas writer Scott Bell spoke tersely at his presentation on fictional dialogue at a recent meeting of the Writer’s Guild of Texas . He’d rather let characters speak for themselves.
“What I’m not going to do," he said, "is talk about punctuating dialogue. What I can’t do: talk about how to create dialogue. We all go at that creative process differently. What I hope to do is give you some tools and enhance your ability to write dialogue.”
So what is fictional dialogue? First, disabuse your minds, writers, of the notion that dialogue in fiction bears any resemblance to the way people actually talk. In fiction, there’s no such thing as throat clearing, no inane small talk, and for the sake of all the gods of writing, there’s no information dumping.
“You reveal rather than explain. Dialogue is the ultimate show versus tell. . . Readers’ eyes get kind of blurry when they see these big blocks of text. If you want the reader to get something specifically, just put it in dialogue.”
Only, with that specificity issue, the principle of dialogue is to “say it but don’t say it.”
How to say something without saying it? Try speaking in codes, such as this one Bell assured us “every woman in the South knows: bless your heart.” Yes, the world’s biggest put down, wrapped in a candy coating. Or let characters use dialogue to divert others from their real concerns, i.e., the classic, “How ‘bout them Cowboys?” And then there’s the often maddening non sequitur, which Bell “wouldn’t use often, but it indicates a disconnect (between characters). You don’t always have to directly answer questions.”
In case there’s still any lingering idea that fictional characters (or real people, for that matter) only talk to exchange information about, say, the latest findings in quantum mechanics, Bell suggested using it instead to convey emotion. As in this sample exchange from his presentation:
“Hey, doll, whatcha up to?”
“Uh, okay. Want I should walk the dog?”
“Fine. Go right ahead.”
There was more, of course, but you already know this conversation isn’t going to be about walking the dog. Not one little bit.
And for those who think descriptions can only be conveyed by having a character view himself in a mirror, there's:
“A real micro-manager, that guy. You see him this afternoon?”
“You mean with his comb-over slicked down? He had, what? Six hairs plastered over his dome?”
Dialogue can even express action:
“Mark, would you get a bag of sugar out of the cupboard? No, honey, the one by the sink. No, the other one, on the left.”
“Here you do. Oops! Dang it!”
And although he claimed not to tell us how to punctuate dialogue, Bell was happy to add some suggestions about some things, like speech tags (“I hate you,” he said) versus his preferred action tags (“I hate you.” He leaped to his feet.)
With examples as lean and mean as those, is it any wonder that when Bell is not writing (and maybe when he is), he's trying to answer this question: What would John Wayne do?
(See the Writer's Guild site for more about its programs, including a flash fiction contest and upcoming workshop with bestselling author Taylor Stevens.)