Saturday, May 10, 2008

In Fiction, Dialogue Is Not Chitchat.

"Hi. How are you?"
"Fine. Thanks, and you?"
"I’m doing well."
"Glad to hear it."

Would you read a novel that offers this kind of dialogue? I doubt it. Dialogue is not conversation. Conversation can be boring. People talk about the weather, their kids, their aches and pains, gas prices, the latest political news, and their shopping sprees.

In fiction, dialogue serves three basic purposes—to move the storyline forward by providing new information, to set a mood or establish a theme, and to reflect character through attitude, speech mannerisms, and word choice. Dialogue can tell us something about the characters education, career, ethnic background, age, and place of residence.Dialogue With PurposeChitchat is part of daily conversation, but dialogue is purposeful. It provides readers with information that fills in the blanks, allows readers to relate to the characters by getting to know them, foreshadows problems or events to come, and sets up conflicts.

In my novel Loving Ways, readers learn more about Annie and Ken’s characters through dialogue. Annie's given her life as a caregiver for her father who just died while four siblings appear looking for what they get from Dad's meager estate. Annie is broke and jobless. In this scene, Ken notices a water color hanging on her living room wall and learns that Annie painted it. This dialogue minus the action and introspection which I've removed for the purpose of illustration, demonstrates how much a reader learns about the characters through their words.

"Annie, they're beautiful. I had no idea you were an artist."
"I wouldn’t call me an artist."
"I would," he said."
"Thank you."
"Have you painted others?"
"A whole attic full."
"Seriously. Sailboats. Sunsets. More flowers."
"You should sell them."
"You mean I should rent space at a gas station like the people who sell those black-velvet paintings?"
"Not quite. Look. I’m practical. Don’t forget this is a tourist town. People spend money like water when they’re on vacation, and paintings like these could sell. Once you have a reputation, who knows what they would bring in?"
"I don’t think so," she said. "Look at them. They're flawed."
"Life’s flawed. That’s what makes them real."

In this short piece of dialogue, readers can pick up Annie and Ken's character. You can observe that Annie is humble about her talent and when she's uncomfortable talking about it, she makes jokes --- references to the velvet paintings at gas stations. Annie also shows a sense of hopelessness. She sees no worth in her art as she sees no worth in herself.

Ken shows sensitivity to Annie's plight and his admiration for her is evident, but he always shows an important attitude that guides his outlook. Life is flawed. This short excerpt of dialogue is purposeful in providing depth to both Annie and Ken's characterization. Their differences might also hint at conflict.

Dialogue must be purposeful, providing information that helps the reader gain insight into plot, character, or emotional reactions. Use dialogue as a tool to strengthen the story and move it forward.

More about dialogue to come.

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