Dialogue more than any other tool in a writer’s tool chest can bring a character to life. A picture, as we know, is worth a thousand words, but most readers don’t want to read a thousand-word description of a character, not nowadays anyways. Plot can tell us about people, but only in an opaque fashion. When a character does something we know what he/she has done, but – unless we are told more – we do not know why or how they felt about what they did. We can, as writers, tell the reader why a character does something or what they were thinking and feeling, but when we do the talking, we impose ourselves between the reader and the character. We become filters – inevitably distorting and refracting. Dialogue, in contrast, allows the characters to speak for themselves about their motives and emotions and this is why I like to use it as much as possible. Mature characters are much better at speaking for themselves than I am at interpreting them for the reader!
Writing good dialogue, therefore, entails the writer removing himself as far as possible from the entire process – like a stenographer in a courtroom. The way I see it, the writer is there to record what the characters say in a certain situation, not to put words into their mouths. I have always found the best dialogue develops when I simply sit back and listen to the inner voices as I move from one character to the other. I write down what I hear in my inner ear without pause or reflection and write until everything has been said.
An example of this absolutely uncommented and so “pure” dialogue is the dialogue I frequently used in my novel Chasing the Wind when recording the dialogue between fighter pilots. Wing Commander Bob Doe, an RAF fighter pilot and veteran of the Battle of Britain, wrote me that Chasing the Wind was the best book he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. He would never have given me this compliment – the highest accolade a writer of historical fiction can receive – if I had failed to get the tone of conversation right. By leaving the dialogue completely uncommented, as if one was simply hearing it, I recreated the world Wg/Cdr Doe remembered.
Here is an excerpt to illustrate what I mean:
“Isn’t that the name of a flick?”
“With David Niven, I think.”
“I don’t think it had a very good ending.”
“Not for everyone.”
Of course, just like real people, characters sometimes say things they don’t mean or get carried away with the sound of their own voices. They may regret some things they say or simply think of better ways to express themselves. So this is where the re-working and revisions come in. A conversation is not necessarily perfect the first time it is recorded, but it will be much more authentic than if the writer from the start tries to direct it.
In addition, because characters also have facial and vocal expressions and often gesture while they speak (body language), the author must provide contextual descriptions. The same phrase, even a single word, can vary in meaning depending on how it is said. Take a single word like, for example, “great!” That could express enthusiastic praise – or disgust. The same goes for almost everything a character might say. Thus whenever it adds to the understanding of situation, the character, or the exchange between two characters, the author should - sparingly - describe the tone of voice, emotions and atmospherics behind the speech.
Here’s example from The Olympic Charioteer:
“Hypathea says you are well enough for light work. Do you agree?”
The slave shrugged.
“What can you do?”
The slave stared at him with narrowed, resentful, hostile eyes.
“I asked you a question,” Antyllus reminded him in a firm but not sharp voice.
“I can cut and set stone, work a crane, lug and carry and haul.”
“I know. You were a quarry slave. But you weren’t that all your life, were you?” This was stating the obvious. A child is not strong enough to be a quarry slave.
The slave did not bother to answer a question that he evidently considered rhetorical.
Antyllus was forced to put the question another way. “What were you before you became a quarry slave, Philip?” He intentionally made use of the name the slave had been given – presumably by a master prior to the quarries – hoping to remind him a better time.
“I built roads.”
The foreman had mentioned that, Antyllus remembered now. “And before that?”
“Before that, Philip?” Antyllus insisted.
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“I could have you flogged.”
“You can kill me, if you like.”
They stared at one another, and Antyllus knew he had been trumped.
Finally, early on in a novel or with secondary and peripheral characters, it may be necessary to provide additional information about the speakers themselves. Here’s another example from Chasing the Wind:
“Excuse me, sir, but is it true that you started your career in the RAF as an apprentice?”
MacLeod started slightly, and then growled back, “That’s right, laddie. I joined at age 14, trained three years at Halton and worked two years as a signaler before I was allowed to start flying training.”
“Would you mind telling me, sir, how I might best go about following in your footsteps, so to speak?”
“You can’t, laddie. Your feet are too small,” MacLeod answered with a contemptuous jerk of his head in the direction of the little rigger’s feet. MacLeod was wearing flying boots, which made his feet all the bigger at the moment.
Appleby wasn’t put off for a moment. You don’t survive growing up in the East End of London if you are thin-skinned, and Appleby’s Dad had abandoned his Mum when Appleby was 7. He’d been the middle child, left very much to himself, and so used to remarks of this kind. He grinned. “You’ve got it backward, sir. I can tread in your prints, but not you in mine.”
A finished dialogue is therefore much more than the raw text provided in the first “stenographic” recording of what the characters want to say, but in no other component of a novel is the character so powerful. I think this is why I tend to like writing dialogue more than description—as my readers probably can tell!