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When we hear the characters speak we experience the events in the story as they happen. We are there in the thick of the action. But when characters do not speak, the writer has to put over the missing dialogue in other ways - usually in long, fussy descriptive passages and clumsy, intrusive explanations. We are no longer involved in the story, we are listening to a narrator recounting the adventures in a flat, static, second-hand summary that others considered a poor substitute for a ring-side seat on the action.
A story needs a dynamic dialogue. Most of what we say in an average day is boring, repetitive and commonplace. Short story dialogue cannot afford to be any of these things. It is the key phrase, the vital speech that brings tension, humor or drama to the piece. It is the writer’s equivalent of the journalist sound bite. To prove it, consider which of the samples has more impact:
Edging back, he gulped. “L-l-look,” he stammered, “can’t we be calm and talk about this? You don’t need the knife.”
B. Angrily Leah confronted Paul, waving a knife in his face. She told him he would never betray her again with another woman. He backed away nervously, asking if they could talk it out. He told her that she did not need to threaten him with a knife.
A and B contain the same basic information but one is exciting. At A, there is life, danger, emotion when Leah screams in rage. While B is not dramatic – in fact it reads like the minutes of a committee meeting.
Dialogue has three main functions:
- To move on the action of the story. “Honey, sit down. I’ve got a surprise for you. It wasn’t indigestion after all…I’m pregnant!”
- To reveal more about the characters. “Love you? I could never love anyone poor.”
- To inject excitement. “If you don’t hand it over, I’ll kill you – so help me!”
In all these instances, dialogue is providing information – not just slavishly mimicking speech. If your dialogue is not telling the reader something crucial about the action, the characters or the atmosphere, it should not be there.
Also fiction writers should not fall into the Hello trap. Beware having your characters waste their dialogue on routine greetings and pleasantries. There is no need to have them wishing each other good morning or asking: how are you keeping these days? It is surprising how much space in a short story you can gobble up with people saying hello and goodbye to each other. It is amazing how much such greetings kill the pace. Also do not allow characters to rabbit on pointlessly just for the sake of hearing their own voices. Unless a conversation is emotion-packed and plays an important part in moving the plot forward, leave it out.