It’s sometimes said that dialog must get right to the point so that you can get back to the story. Nothing is happening while the characters are talking. Of course, that’s not true. Ideas are being kicked around. Decisions are being made. Side stories are being told. Good dialog advances the story.
When critics complain about dialog, what they are unhappy with are two person debates that don’t go anywhere. Those are arguments along the lines of “Is not” “Is too” but more complex. Discussions like that show up in some stories because the writer finds it easy to write. It makes the pages of a first draft fly by. Smart writers omit useless dialog.
The dialog in good books serves many purposes.
Dialog Pages are Zippy
Readers like dialog. There are fewer words on a page of dialog. They feel like they’re making progress through the book. As long as it’s interesting and moves the story along, they’ll like it.
Dialog can also be used to tell stories that would otherwise need their own chapter or a break from the novel’s format. There are several types of stories that are revealed best through dialog.
Stories With Ideas
A story that a character tells to amuse the group may be there to give one of the listeners an idea. Maybe it won’t be a good idea. For example, someone tells the story of using a pointy stick to prevent a cow from crushing them against the wall at feeding time. Later on, one of the listeners uses a pointy stick with a horse and gets trampled to death.
Short flashbacks are easy to present as dialog. The only other option would be a flashback chapter. You can’t have a flashback chapter every time you bring up information from the past.
Events the POV Character Couldn’t Attend
This is another kind of flashback, but to an event that just happened. In any novel that follows the same point of view character all the way through, some events will need to be told in dialog.
If you really wanted to have fun with this sort of thing, a character could tell a story about something that happened elsewhere in which one of the characters tells a story about another event that happened even earlier. This happens a lot in mysteries. The investigator hears a story from one of his subordinates who got a story from a crook with information about a crime.
Dialogs Show Relationships
Unless you’re writing a violent novel, power relations can be tough to reveal in the action. It takes dialog to show who is in charge. Dialog also reveals friends, enemies, and neutral relationships.
Arguments That Cause a Change of Plans
Most people are prone to being influenced by others. If you need a character to do something out of character, a dialog shows why they made that choice.
Arguments also show options that weren’t acted on. Why would that be important? It can show a smart choice that was missed. It can show a bad choice that another character, who missed the discussion, acted on outside of the narration. It can foreshadow an action that an enemy is going to take.
Good dialog will never disappear from novels. Not only are there many ways it can advance the story, but it’s also a break from page after page of narration. I once read a book about a velociraptor’s life. The animals didn’t speak, so the story was straight narration. Despite all the violence, it was boring.
Speaking of dialog, don’t be afraid to leave a comment. Tell me what I missed.
Article by Ivan Izo.