I asked my characters why they speak to each other the way they do. They said,
“We don’t think about things before we say them.”
I erased a line of exposition from a previous paragraph and told my characters, but I think about everything before I write it down.
“Do you really though?”
I added a note to the margin of a previous page, she wouldn’t really react this way.
“She may not react that way, but she’s certainly thinking about it. We know, we asked her. She whispers instead of shouting when she’s upset and you have her there on that page yelling.”
I erased the line of dialogue and wrote, she whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “I didn’t know.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.
“Good, that’s good. But couldn’t it always be better?”
I put my hand to my forehead and resisted the urge to bang my temple against the page, so that the words would be imprinted on my cheek in pencil and I could show everyone how hard I’ve been working.
“Don’t think about the function. Think about the lyric. Listen for the music. Picture the sound in your mind, the sentence has to breathe like stars do, right before they fade.”
She whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “You know I’m bad at conversation. I didn’t know you would be gone in three months.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.
“Good enough,” they said.
I believe I read somewhere that dialogue should read like poetry. Characters do not always need to speak (to the same degree that some physical humans should not always speak). Therefore, when characters do talk, I make sure that their words have significant meaning in that they themselves are telling parts of their own story. Or, I make sure that their words benefit the exposition surrounding them, that the spoken words essentially sound ‘pretty’. At least this is what I try to do. Sometimes dialogue comes more naturally and therefore becomes something I have to cut repetitively in editing due to the fact that a lot of what people say is less important than what they do. I find this to be true for most of my characters as well.
With every line of dialogue I write, I try to pay attention to the line-by-line purpose. As an example, the characters above speak directly to me instead of speaking directly to my character. They are both demanding and specific. I, both as a writer and a character, do not always say anything back. Perhaps this is an exercise in getting purpose down onto the page without all of the excess, flowery language… perhaps I am simply hearing voices. Either way, dialogue, I think, can be a fun way to play with your characters. It can be a useful tool when addressing description, setting and atmosphere. For me personally, it's a really in-depth way to practice getting inside of my characters’ minds. This should make characters unique because no two characters are exactly the same, their voices should sound different as their minds work differently. Unless, of course, you are writing a story that involves two identical minds. In that case, I applaud your approach, question your sanity, and would like to read a copy.
I find that dialogue does not always have to serve a function. Instead, it brings the words on the page to life and sounds more like a rhythm, or lyric. It’s like that last piece to the puzzle, the outer edge or corner that only fits in a certain spot and deserves a lot of practice of placement.
Emily White is a first-year MFA student currently trying to accomplish the daunting task of completing a story.