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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
I don’t know whether this is a quote from somewhere, or whether it has come to me with relative originality, but there is a line that has been going through my mind quite a bit lately: “There is no one quite so dangerous as a smart fool.”
“This is self-contradictory!” You might be thinking. But really, nearly all super-villains fall into this category. They are smart: they can hatch cunning plans and command armies, dictate nations — but they fail to realise what is truly important.
Smart fools are sprawled all over The Lord of the Rings: Sauron, Saruman, even Denethor…. They were all greatly learned people, and yet they gradually became deluded: they failed to realise what was right — and ultimately, what would prevail. They remained smart, even after their morals melted away; even after they tricked themselves into believing what was untrue. Indeed, in the case of Sauron and Saruman they could never have built up so much power had they not retained their cleverness. And yet, ultimately, they were fools.
Take the Harry Potter series. Tom Riddle was a very smart person: he was the Hermione of his day. He was prefect and then Head-Boy; he was able to delude all his teachers into liking him (except Dumbledore); he could perform very high level magic — magic powerful enough to terrorise the entire wizarding world in Britain. But he was a cold-hearted fool; he never understood the most important things in life: “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
Smart fools can be contrasted with stupid fools. Stupid fools can get into drunken brawls; they can bully – they can cause a great deal of harm and suffering. But they won’t achieve it on the same scale of the smart fool. The thug down the street may have killed one man before he was carted off to jail. Adolf Hitler, a cleverer man, killed six million Jews before he realised his empire was crumbling, and killed himself too.
Of course, the wise have the potential to be dangerous too. Gandalf cleared this up for Gimli:
Gimli said, “But you speak of him as if he were a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous … And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers … for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless.”
But the wise do not go around being dangerous for no reason. Gandalf — and Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli — while they are not ones to cross, are not a threat to the peace and well-being of society: rather they used their very dangerousness to enforce peace. Aragorn spent a great deal of time in the vicinity of the Shire — not to exploit the jolly, simple hobbits, but to protect them.
The reason smart fools are so dangerous is because they have the brains to conquer the world, coupled with the mindset that conquering the world is the best thing for them to do. They do not mind what they do to people, so long as they get what they want. So they are a terrible danger to all in their way.
Thus, beware the smart fool. (except when you’re trying to think up a worthy villain).