Let’s talk dialogue

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

I had two reasons for the chats I reported having with Mama G. One was to have a little fun change of pace and the other was to play with dialogue. I think I’ve only talked about dialogue once before, on September 8, 2013.

Today I’d like to dig a little deeper and use “The Mother Goose Dialogues” as examples. I’ll begin by quoting myself from WRITING STORIES, FANTASTIC FICTION FROM START TO FINISH, a Scholastic Guides book that came out in 2004.

“Characters need to sound natural. How does a writer learn to write good dialogue? Two words: Listen. Practice. Listen to conversations around you. Everyone talks differently. Dialogue is not just about how high or deep our voices are, how loud or soft. Each of us has a rhythm to the way we speak.

Some of us speak like we’re in a hurry.
Some of us go slowly and choose words with care.
Some of us use worn-out expressions.
Some of us change subjects in the middle of a sentence.
Some of us interrupt others before they finish speaking.

We overhear bits of conversation all the time — in restaurants, parks, stores, at parties.

“So I told her it was none of her . . . “
“I freaked out man like I was like so totally like you know I thought I’d like totally like lose it!”
“He won’t understand. He never under- . . . ”
“I can’t even think about that now!”
“He’s so cuuuuute!!!”

One of the first lessons that budding writers are taught is to show, not tell. It’s a hard lesson to learn, remember, and practice. Our tendency is to assume that our reader won’t get our meaning if we don’t s-p-e-l-l out our characters’ every thought. Without realizing it or meaning to we write down to our reader as though he or she is not capable of reading the situation with understanding.

We tend to tell too much.

One reason I like dialogue is that it can be used effectively to show rather than tell and it can cut through yards of narrative during moments when the story’s action needs to move along.

E. B. White’s famous opening line of CHARLOTTE’S WEB could not have captured the reader’s interest any faster or more thoroughly any other way.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Those first six words are magic. The remaining thirteen words in the sentence tell us the facts necessary to put the fist six into perspective.

The second sentence provides the answer. “Some pigs were born last night.” We don’t need to know what Mrs. Arable is thinking when she tells her daughter so White keeps his opening moving without further ado.

The third sentence sets the scene for the insight that’s soon to follow. “I don’t see why he needs an ax.” We can see trouble coming and we’re still in the top half of page one.

When Fern learns that her papa is going to destroy the runt pig in the litter, she shrieks. That’s it. She doesn’t shriek loudly. She doesn’t shriek as if her heart is breaking. She doesn’t shriek from deep in her throat. She shrieks. And we understand.

Her mother’s response? “Don’t yell, Fern.” Not, “Don’t yell, Fern, sighed her mother.” Not, “Don’t yell, Fern, her mother said sternly.” Just short and un-accessorized: “Don’t yell.” We can take it from there.

So lately I’ve been talking to a goose who has pitched her camp on the landing at the bottom of the steps that lead down to the lake. I didn’t spend much time perfecting these reports but to keep them brief I found it helpful to use dialogue where narrative might have been too slow.
Here’s how I might have described part of the first chat using all narrative:

“I asked Mother Goose why she had a chip on her wing. She snorted and asked me what difference it made to me. I told her that it mattered because I cared about her.

She told me I’d just used the oldest pickup line in the world and that she wasn’t about to fall for that one again. I assumed that her would-be mate must have said something similar during their courting days.

She said he cared about her only until he had his way with her.

I guessed that she meant until he got her in a motherly way with fertilized eggs.

Her glare told me that she considered me to be an idiot.”

This is only a quick first draft. With some work I’m sure I could make it more interesting prose but I would still have to cover the same ground. This draft required 115 words.

Here’s the same passage using dialogue to carry most of the action. One nice thing about dialogue is that once you set up a conversation between two characters, you reach a point where you can often dispense with he said/she said, which reduces unnecessary verbiage.

“Hey, it’s only me,” I called. “What’s with the chip on your wing?”

“What’s it to you?” she honked.

“Because I care about you,” I said.

“That’s the oldest line in the world,” she said, bobbing her head in agreement with herself. “I’ll never fall for that one again.”

“You mean . . . “

“Yep. Until he got his way with me.”

“And made you preggers?”

“Duh!”

In this case using dialogue rather than narrative took 64 words, and it features more showing and less telling.
If you’d like to pursue this further in my second report, there are additional examples of sticking to the action, doing without he said/she said in a number of cases, and rounding out the main character – all in fewer words than prose would require to address the same elements.

In closing, I wanted Mama G to come off being in a better mood but still with an edge.

“I can do the math,” she said. “I didn’t exactly flunk flight school.”

“Uh . . .”

“But I’m better now. I’ve been making up stories and telling them to my eggs. My goslings will pop out loving my stories!”

“Fantastic!” I said. “Do you have a name for your stories?”

“Really?” she said. “Really?”

“Not thinking,” I mumbled.

“Don’t you have work you need to be doing?” she suggested.