Conversation is as complicated as it gets. The subtleties of the way people talk, coupled with the body language used and the flavors of tone, make a symphony of complexity that can be difficult to sort out.
When you add to the fact that often times written word does not allow for tone and body language, then you are left with a soupy mess writers need to navigate in order to get their points across in their work. How often have you gotten a text and misread the intent of the message sent to you because you couldn’t see the person talking to you or hear their voice as they spoke the words?
The writing of dialogue is tricky in many ways because it has in its form a grouping of illusions writers can use to get their point across. In this blog series, we look at the different tools that can be used to tell a story through conversation alone. We have looked at the use of tags, the flavors of the pause, and now I would like to examine the use of dialogue when playing with exposition.
We have all been at a party, maybe at school or work, and walked up to a conversation in progress. We have no idea what is being talked about, what the story is about or how far the teller is in the story at all. A couple of things could happen at this point.
You could ask, “What are you guys talking about?” This interrupts the flow of the story, often times derailing it completely and breaking the tone and mood of the telling. The story teller must stop what he or she is saying and fill you in.
The teller of the story could pause, hold up a finger and turn to you, explain everything that has been said to that point and continue.
Or you can stand by, watch the telling and using context clues, figure out the tale being told.
These three methods of story telling are used in the speaking of dialogue in a novel or story of any kind as well. Let’s examine every one of these and see the effects they have on the person walking up to the scene.
As readers, if we interrupt the conversation, we are turning back in the book. We are looking for clues to what is being discussed. We assume because we do not know what is being said that we missed something in the book. This is jarring to the reader and often causes them to get frustrated with the book. Just like when a new person to the group asks what is being said, this is not the writer’s or storyteller’s fault. This is on the reader. They do not trust the writer will make things clear and they do not trust their current understanding of the book. The writer cannot help this at all. This is out of your control.
Often times the reader will walk up to a conversation two characters are having and the writer will stop. They will clip the conversation short and explain what is going on in the conversation. This as well is jarring and takes the reader out of the story. We hear the voice of the writer instead of the voice of the character and we find that we are instantly disconnected from the book all together.
But when a writer lets the conversation go without any explanation, a few interesting things happen. Let’s look at a piece of dialogue from a book I wrote called Song. Here are two friends talking about another person and the level of power she has as a wizardess.
“She is an extremely competent wizardess.”
Sabrar sniffed the air about Rayph and shook his head. “Has she seen its face?” he asked, before taking a long drink from his mug.
Rayph shuddered at the mention of his last experience with Sabrar and the memory of the thing they had banished. “No, she has not seen its face,” he said, wiping his brow and steadying himself with a drink.
“Would she have survived had she seen its visage, had she smelled its stinking breath?”
“Not many would.”
“You and I did. Therefore, when you sit a city, I will present myself to you. I know no other peer by my reckoning.”
There is an entire story being told here without exposition, a tale only snippets of information provide. This causes certain effects for the reader.
First the reader must remain active. They must take in the words being spoken and draw their own conclusions. They must build the narrative in a way that fits what the writer is doing and what the characters are saying.
When I am writing, I assume intelligence on the part of the reader. I assume if they are taking the time to pick up a book, they are smart enough to follow me through tiny bits of confusion. I will keep a conversation going and let them figure it out. Let them walk up to the conversation and listen. Let them put it all together. In this way, my dialogue is working like exposition.
I am not stopping the story to tell the reader the details of the fight Sabrar and Rayph had with the unknown creature. I am letting them use context clues to become part of the story. They feel like they have just walked up on something, that the world is moving outside their realm of understanding. This provides the illusion the world is bigger than this book. If the conversation was going on or not explained for them, then the world must be off the page as well as on it. The world seems bigger because there are parts of it the reader is not aware of. Through a small piece of dialogue, I have made the world seem richer and more real.
We know these two men have a past. They have done something together, faced an enemy not many others would have survived. That story is not part of this one, and the world is now bigger because the reader knows this.
This technique also provides a sense of realism. We, in life, do not always catch the beginning. We do not always have all the pieces of what we are looking at. We do not always understand what is happening while it is going on. Providing that sort of factor in our work makes the book that much more realistic. Readers have to deal with this sort of thing all the time in their lives. As human beings, we are used to putting things together that are not always clear. When the reader is forced to use this ability, they find that they are simultaneously thrown off balance because they don’t know what is happening and comfortable because this is a facet of the real world they deal with all the time.
Another illusion is invoked when you leave your reader out of the conversation for a few lines. When you are describing the world through dialogue instead of exposition, they learn it faster. When someone walks up to you as a human being walking the world and starts talking to you as if you already know a thing, you are made to feel as though you might. You find it sounds familiar. Sure, I knew that. It is so simple. The person talking to you brings you in and makes you believe you knew this thing all along. You are tricked into recognizing the information before you really have it. You feel like things have been explained to you before, and you grasp the information faster and easier.
When I am writing dialogue I will often assume the reader does not need me to explain things. I use the conversation I am writing to inform the reader of things they didn’t know, letting them become an active part of the story and providing them with context clues for figuring things out, allowing them to grow familiar with the facts without breaking the flow of the story or catering to them as if they are slow at understanding things. I allow the illusions of dialogue to provide my exposition for me.