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Talkies, Part 1

In the late 1920s, the talkie films were born. This was the new age. Suddenly, many of the old great silent actors couldn’t compete — all that miming and slapstick wasn’t much use any more. Others, who may not have had Charlie Chaplin’s propensity for silly faces, could now charm the audience with the power of their voice.

Dialogue is a tricky thing. Some people get it, others don’t. And it’s not just a challenge in talkie films, it’s a challenge in fiction writing.

Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about dialogue. What role should it play in my writing? How can I get it to play that role? If I want to write good talkie novels (which I do) it’s essential that I get the hang of this. Today I’ll focus on that first question: “What role should it play in my writing”. Here are some of my thoughts.

To start with, I’ve realised that dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Well, duh, you say: everything should serve a purpose. And yet, too often, my dialogue serves no story purpose at all.

So what’s the goal of dialogue? I don’t want to box us in and create imaginary rules, but it seems to me that most of the time, dialogue serves one (or more) of three main objectives: to portray character, to advance the plot or to create a certain effect.

  1. The importance of dialogue to portrayal of character is difficult to overstate. In a well-written story, a character’s speech tells us so much about them. For one thing, their accent and grammatical choices can tell us about where they are from and about their socioeconomic background. We’ve got characters like Hagrid in Harry Potter whose accent tells us that he is rustic, outdoorsy and perhaps hasn’t had a high level of education, which seems to fit perfectly with his role as Hogwarts gamekeeper. (And I’m sure someone with a greater knowledge of Britain’s accents would be able to more accurately place his geographical heritage). But dialogue can be used to show so many other aspects of a character. Are they outgoing or shy? Are they smart or foolish — or smart in some areas and foolish in others? Are they friendly and caring for others or are they selfish? Are they “talkers” who say things they don’t really mean (think Isabella Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey)? Do their actions contradict their words (think Brutus, in Julius Caesar)? Do they have superstitions (think Basta, in Inkheart)? All of these aspects of character, and more, can be shown effectively through dialogue. So when you write dialogue, don’t let it just be random words that could have been said by anybody — use it to create a powerful image of a particular character.
  2. Dialogue can also be handy in advancing the plot. This is usually because it allows the characters to discover new information — information that radically alters the course of the story. Think of Radagast arriving in An Unexpected Journey and telling the company about the evils in Mirkwood. Or Gale’s words to Katniss at the climactic close to Catching Fire, providing the plot-twist that catapults us into the final book. If you can advance the plot through dialogue, do so. (Nevertheless, not all plot advancement needs to — or indeed, should — be precipitated by dialogue).
  3. A final purpose of dialogue is to create or perpetuate a particular effect that the author wants their story to possess. In some stories, this is a sober, chilling effect — think of the The Dark Knight Rises: “it will be very painful… for you”. In other stories, the author wants to go for a humorous effect, and dialogue is an important means of creating that humour — think of Harry Potter, where jokes told by the likes of Fred and George go a long way to providing welcome laughs in a pretty dark story.

These three objectives are each, on their own, very important in a story, but dialogue can be used most effectively if it helps us meet multiple objectives simultaneously. Sometimes, the sole purpose of piece of dialogue is to develop character, or advance the plot, or create humour. Most great dialogue, however, will do two of those, or even all three. If you’ve read Catching Fire, think again to the ending: that last piece of dialogue doesn’t just catapult us into the final book, it also shows something about Gale’s character — and it perpetuates the grim, suspenseful tone of the series.

Now — and this, I’ve realised, is important — though dialogue should always serve a purpose, the fact that it does serve a purpose doesn’t meet it belongs. Sometimes, all of the things accomplished by dialogue can be accomplished even better without it. I learned this lesson in the short story / novella I wrote this year. At one stage, I tried to introduce a new character, together with an associated plot-point, through dialogue. The dialogue served the purpose of character development and plot advancement to an extent, but after a while I realised it still wasn’t the best thing to do. In the end, I decided to use narrative exposition to introduce the character and the situation, both because it would make things clearer for the audience and because it would contribute to the darkly reflective tone of the story.

In the end, then, for dialogue to be successful, it needs to serve a purpose and it needs to serve that purpose better than straight-out exposition, or any other means. This seems like a no-brainer, but I think too often I rush into writing dialogue without considering whether it’s necessary. My goal is to be more discriminatory in my use of dialogue, and while this won’t happen overnight (certainly not in my first drafts — and I’m okay with that), hopefully in time I’ll perform this discrimination subconsciously. Talkies are tough, but I don’t want to be a silent actor.

This has been Talkies, Part 1. Come back in a week or two for Talkies, Part 2.