C2 Commentary: Writing Dialogue

In C2: Jango Skyy, Faith smokes her first cricket, a gift from Virgil Skyy. The two discuss the Islands of Sheridan, setting up plot points and displaying their character to the reader along the way. Dialogue is invaluable to a book but it’s difficult to write so that it drives the story while reflecting the characters. I believe dialogue should be balanced along two axes:

First, the realism-to-instrumentalism axis. Dialogue should be realistic, seeming like something someone might actually say. Simultaneously, we as artists must artificially construct the dialogue to take the reader on a tour of character traits and plot points. Otherwise, the story just circles the drain.

Here’s some dialogue which might be realistic but serves no purpose:

“Hey, Jangster. What are you doing?”

“Faith. I was looking for you.”

“I like your robes.”

“Thanks. I only have one set.”

Well actually, that non-canon exchange sort of conveys some character, so it’s not totally purposeless. But compare it to something with no realism, no spark of character, and just pure functionality:

“I’m dating Beatrice, so I want to tell her about those birds. She likes birds and I want to tell her something nice about birds because I am dating her.”

“I won’t tell you the thing about birds. I’m offended at the thought. Later in the story, this will be important,” he said, winking. “Also I will be offended if people photograph the birds. Take note!”

Really, when we write dialogue, we must write it twice. We must understand it on the level of the characters, their feelings, and their interactions, while also managing the plot, introducing settings, and reminding readers of important details. In the final text, my take looks like this:

“Is that where the birds live?” Faith leaned on the fence and fished the brochure from her purse. She showed him the picture of the little flightless birds. “They’re adorable!”

Jango shivered and stuck one finger in his mouth.

Faith put away the pamphlet. “Is something wrong?”

“Those fledglings are supremely sacred,” he said. “Their photography is absolutely forbidden. It’s not your fault; you did not take the picture, and it is a superstition in any case. But when tourists visit our islands, we take great pains to remind them to photograph anything except the birds.”

“Gosh, sorry. I just have this friend who loves birds. I’d love to know more about them.”

This also demonstrates the second axis, the vocal-to-physical axis. Characters say some things and show others. In the section above Jango responds to Faith’s bird picture using only body language. Then he explains verbally why he performed that action. Pixar’s Wall-E had no dialogue for almost the first half, using only body-language. Shakespeare’s plays are written with little stage direction, forcing actors to use dialogue to understand their character. There are lots of options, is what I’m saying.

But those Shakespearean actors use acting to emphasize the dialogue they’re given. Physical actions are paramount! Even if you are quite good at leaving lines of stark dialogue, these lines must stand against a background of action. Look at this:

“We live on the Islands of Sheridan—we knew a trip to Sheridan, Wyoming was inevitable. It was destined by the Mountain.”

Faith nodded but turned away. She watched a deer bounce over rivers and rocks. “I don’t want to burst your bubble but there are a lot of places in America called Sheridan. It’s a common city name, like Springfield.”

Without Faith’s action splitting the dialogue her statement could come across as harsh. Her “I don’t want to burst your bubble” could seem sarcastic. Breaking eye contact and focusing on something else softens the statement and makes her concern seem earnest. It also gives me a chance to throw more animals into the prose, because I want to associate Faith with animals and nature.

That’s all for today. Next time let’s see how Faith, Beatrice, and DanJay react to centipede dust. Until then, keep eating your worms!

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