…“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Dialog occupies an odd place on the list of fundamental fiction-writing skills. It’s a component of nearly all fiction, but it’s not absolutely necessary (Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain, for instance, both have only one character present for most of the book; there is thus almost no dialog). Many people, like Alice, prefer dialog-heavy stories; others warn sternly about “talking heads” or sneer at dialog-heavy books as being “too easy” or a cop-out of some kind.
Yet dialog is one of the more flexible – and therefore complex – aspects of writing. Dialog can be used to describe people, places, and things, to convey the speaker’s personality and background, to advance or explain the plot, to provide background and backstory – anything that narrative does, in fact. The writer has to pay attention to all the normal concerns, like pacing, in addition to some things like keeping it clear who the speaker is, which is only a problem with dialog. And there are some things, like voice, that become more important in dialog because the writer is dealing with, potentially, as many different voices as there are characters.
In fact, the way characters talk inevitably tells the reader a lot about them. Consider the following untagged talking heads:
“I ain’t doin’ it, and that’s flat.”
“Have I requested any such thing of you?”
“Um, well, I don’t like saying this, but it certainly sounded to me as if you did. Ask, I mean. Though of course I may be mistaken; still, somebody will have to water the roses while you’re away – it’s such a lovely garden, it would be a shame to let it go – and I do think – “
“I ain’t watering no damned flowers. Sissy job.”
“No, no, there are ever so many men who are florists. It’s just like farming, really. Sort of. Isn’t it? Don’t you think?”
“Your defense of my position leaves a great deal to be desired. In the first place, garden maintenance has very little to do with being a florist, and in the second, I have still not requested that he perform any.”
“Good. You got some sense, anyways.”
Now consider what you know or can guess about these people just from their dialog…starting with how many of them are present in the conversation. If I did my job right, it should be pretty clear that there are three people talking, and it should also be clear whether A, B, or C is saying each line. The reader can, I think, make at least tentative assumptions about the relative social class and education level of each speaker, the fact that they aren’t complete strangers, how well they get along, and the general personality type of each. Also, one ends up with a pretty good idea of their various opinions of gardening.
That’s quite a bit to get out of seven dialog exchanges, and there may be some other things in there as well that I’m not noticing because I put it in unintentionally. Theoretically, one could tell many stories using only dialog (and I don’t mean just plays). Normally, though, untagged dialog is a technique that’s used only briefly, for reasons of variation or emphasis or pacing.
The point I wanted to make here, though, is twofold: first, that the most effective dialog is frequently the sort that could work without any speech tags at all (whether or not it has any) because each character has a unique voice that is obviously or subtly different from that of every other character in the book; and second, that the most effective speech tags, description, and stage business are the sort that add something more to that already-effective dialog.
If I’m over-simplifying, I’d say that there are two kinds of things that fall into that second category: stuff that’s already there in the dialog, and stuff that isn’t and can’t be in the dialog. In other words, you can take the personality or emotions or whatever that’s already implied by the way the dialog is phrased, and emphasize it with stage business or a speech tag: “I don’t – I can’t – oh, dear, oh, dear.” Her fingers twisted and untwisted the curtain cord in time with her stammering. This can be perilously easy to overdo, though, and overdoing it often weakens the impression the author wants to make, rather than strengthening it.
Stuff that can’t be in the dialog is, in part, fairly obvious. It’s possible to have one character describing a room or a landscape in detail in his/her dialog, but it’s difficult to justify doing more than once (and if one does do it more than once, it starts looking obvious and overdone pretty quickly). The same goes for commenting on another character’s actions.
Less obvious are things like contrasting tone of voice. “You are a rotten, scheming bastard!” seldom needs a speech tag of “he shouted,” but if the speech tag is “she said admiringly” it is absolutely required.