Now and then, you’ll come across a piece of film devoid of conversation. Usually, they’re shorts (Disney’s “Paperman” remains one of my all-time favorites). Why? Because humans are social creatures. We’re used to observing stories through the interaction of dialogue when we see more than one character on a screen. When Wall-E came out, people pitched a fit over the lack of spoken lines so deep into the movie. They struggled to engage with the action and pantomime; the outcry for dialogue flooded critics’ reviews and local news features. Supplying potential internal monologues or interactions doesn’t work for some people.
And the same goes for reading material.
Yes, you can write a brilliant piece of action. You can bounce from one event to the next, reporting a veritable feast for the senses. But without SOME kind of conversation present, most readers will start to lose interest. You definitely won’t get away with that in a novel-length work. The enforced “silence” will drive an audience up the wall. The social nature of our species craves the interaction of dialogue. SOMEHOW, you need to introduce the art of idea exchange between your characters. (I’ll give you a pass if you only have a single character. Though most writers find ways of working dialogue into those stories in new and inventive ways)
But there’s a right way and an obnoxious way to handle dialogue when you’re writing. One seamlessly incorporates conversations into the story, immersing your reader into a different world. The other drives them batshit crazy and causes them to hurl the book across the room. (Yes, they can end up published; it doesn’t make the practice acceptable) And before you raise a hand in protest, I’m not laying down any rules here. I’m only trying to save your readers from cursing your name.
Proper written dialogue doesn’t stand out. It blends in with the action, moving the story along at the same pace. You don’t see the phrasing or sentences jutting out like a sore thumb. That means using a vocabulary appropriate for the world you’ve created and for the particular character speaking. You can’t break the conventions you’ve laid down or throw away expectations your reader has in place. As soon as you do that, you lose their interest.
To that end, you should follow these three important guidelines. They’ll prevent your dialogue from looking foolish or sounding mechanical.
1. Be Accurate
For instance, if you’re writing anything historical, leave the slang OUT. You need to find the accurate alternatives for the time (and region) you’ve chosen. The only time you can make exceptions is if you’re working with a time-jumping concept (and, honestly, those are so difficult to get right).
By the same token, don’t attempt to write characters from another region of the world unless you understand the culture. People use different euphemisms and expressions, apply different syntax, and even shift the order of verbs and nouns when they learn English. You can’t decide to say, “Oh, this character’s Russian,” and then have them speak as an American. It doesn’t work. Do your homework and get things accurate.
2. Minimimize the Tag
This is where you find plenty of angry debates in writing forums. Some people believe you should only use “said” when you tag a bit of dialogue. Others feel it’s appropriate to use SOME (notice the all caps there) flavor in your tagging, so you don’t sound like a robot. I lean towards the latter, mainly because reading “said” all the time gets annoying and repetitive. However, there’s a third option that trumps the other two: avoiding the tag as much as possible.
If you’ve developed your characters properly, you don’t need to close every bit of dialogue. The choice of words, the way they speak, and the action around the conversation will clue the reader in. Remember, you’re integrating all of these lines into the flow of the story. How often do people sit woodenly, chatting? Never. They move their hands, pace, fiddle with objects, etc. Actions accompany our voices, and your characters should do the same thing. Use expressions and habits to add context to your dialogue. And then you can avoid the whole “to said or not to said” debate.
3. Skip Phonetics
Accents are fun. Everyone has their favorites, and they add texture to a story. However, you can go too far when you start writing dialogue in phonetics to “explain” an accent. Your reader slams into a wall, trying to decipher what someone’s saying. Action grinds to a halt, they lose the flow of the story, and maybe they even need to haul out a dictionary or app to figure out what you wrote. No one wants that.
A word here or there is fine. Even a casual reference of loving so-and-so’s accent (if you’re using a popular choice) works. Readers have vivid imaginations, and they can fill in the blank for you – no prompting required. Leave out the phonetic lesson.
You SHOULD incorporate dialogue into your writing. It adds interest, provides a chance to drop red herrings, builds character traits, and adds empathy for the reader. The more your reader cares about and identifies with your story, the less likely they will close the pages and toss the book aside. So you need BELIEVABLE situations. And that means conversations.
But you want to tackle the dialogue properly. Otherwise, you’re going to annoy your readers differently. (And, yes, I’ve encountered books for all of these examples) Maybe SOMEONE can break the rules and do it well. But the odds aren’t in their favor. Stick to what works. Your readers (and future editor) will thank you.