A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about point of view and the ways in which it could help us address nearly all the narrative problems we face when writing. In comments to the post, Donald “SagaBlessed” Kirby, mentioned that making our dialog feel natural can sometimes be difficult, which is absolutely true.
More to the point, of all the writing problems that point of view can help us address, perhaps none is better suited to a POV solution than that of contrived dialog. Frankly, I can’t believe I left it out of my previous post.
Here at MW, we’ve discussed dialog quite a bit over the years, and I’m going to do my best not to cover the same ground in this post. This is not a post about how to write dialog, or how to make the spoken words themselves sound natural. (Carrie did this very well in a post that went up about a year ago. ) Rather, I want to look at ways in which POV in particular can help us make dialog our come to life. Through the lens of point of view, I’m going to focus on three specific elements of dialog: conveying important information, attributing spoken lines to the correct character, and giving each conversation a narrative arc.
Let’s start with the information we hope to give to our readers through our spoken scenes. Thinking about it broadly, there are really only a few ways to tell our readers stuff. We can do it through simple exposition, or what would properly be termed internal monolog — this is where the point of view character thinks to herself about some circumstance or situation that is crucial to the plot and her personal life. We can have our readers receive the information at the same time our point of view character does — by having that character read something (a letter, a diary, a book) or watch something (the news, a live event, a movie or play) or overhear another conversation. Or we can have our point of view character talk about those circumstances or issues with another character. Those are basically our three choices. Any other approach involves stepping out of point of view to take on an omniscient voice, which we don’t want to do.
Two of those three choices (internal monolog and receiving the information) are fairly passive. Dialog is more active, more dynamic, more entertaining for our readers. But, as Donald says, it’s tricksy, because it is the one method that can seem most forced and contrived. How do we prevent our dialog from becoming so laden with information, and so directed toward our narrative goals, that it no longer feels natural? By being true to point of view, of course.
What do I mean?
Our own real-life conversations sound natural because we say what we need to say to get our point across, without giving those with whom we’re speaking more information than they would need. Our characters should do the same. If, for instance, I talk to my wife about my work, and I mention Tor Books, I wouldn’t have to tell her that Tor Books is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy headquartered in New York. I could tell her that, but she’d look at me funny and wonder why I was telling her stuff that she already knew. In the same way, our characters should not offer unnecessary information in their conversations, because it will sound just as foolish. If we can put ourselves in the minds of our characters well enough to understand their worlds, their emotions, their motivations, and their relationships with other characters, we should also be able to approach their conversations with the same assumptions and knowledge that they bring to those encounters. The result should be more realistic dialog that conveys the information our readers need, without sounding forced.
But, of course, there is more to dialog on the written page than just the lines our characters speak. We also need to let our readers know who is saying what, in a way that is both clear and interesting. Point of view helps with this as well.
Dialog attribution is one of the hardest elements of writer to master in part because there are so many different thoughts on how to approach it. Almost all editors and writers agree that in today’s market, you should avoid said-bookisms. But beyond that, you will hear some folks say that using “said” and “asked” is fine because the words become, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Others will tell you to avoid these sorts of dialog tags entirely, and rely solely on the spoken words themselves and descriptions of action and gesture to convey who is speaking. I fall somewhere in between these two extremes. But ultimately, you need remain true to the perceptions of your narrating character. Not every spoken line can or should be accompanied by a gesture or facial expression. But your POV character should pick up on visual clues at key moments in a conversation. A visual detail offered as the most important lines are spoken — a twitching at the corners of the mouth, a hardening of the muscles around the jaw, a nervous action or gesture such as balling up torn pieces of a napkin or bouncing one’s leg — can often place emphasis on important emotional touchstones in a discussion. More, they are the types of visual clues we often look for in our own conversations, and so they are the things our POV characters should be looking for.
So, when we’re attributing dialog it is fine to leave a few lines untagged; context will tell the reader who is speaking. And it’s fine to use “said” and ‘asked” as tags, as long as we don’t overuse them. But by using more creative details like gesture, facial expression, and action, we can make it clear who has spoken AND we can allow our POV characters to guide us through the emotional dynamics of the conversation.
Finally, we can use point of view to give each spoken scene a sense of narrative arc. Some of you may remember Vernor’s Law, which is something I have referred to here in the past. The “Law” comes from award-winning author Vernor Vinge, and paraphrased it goes like this: When writing a story or book we seek to do three things — fill in background, deepen character, and advance plot. At any given moment in a book, we should be accomplishing at least two if not all three of those things. If we are doing only one of them or, God forbid, none, then our narrative has stalled.
So, following Vernor’s Law, each spoken scene has to have two or three purposes, and chances are at least one of them will relate to the goals and wants of our point of view character or a character close to her/him. Put another way, the narrative arc of a conversation should be dictated by the motivations of your POV character, or by those of one of the people to whom s/he is talking. (If the latter, then chances are our POV character will sense that the person with whom s/he is conversing has an agenda.) That sounds pretty elementary, but it means that scenes with dialog should move with purpose; they should not meander or stall. Again, point of view allows us to propel our narratives by linking story elements with the perceptions and emotions of our narrating characters.
This is a long post already, and there is plenty here for us to discuss. So let’s talk about dialog from the perspective of POV. What problems have you encountered with your spoken scenes? How might you solve them with point of view?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com