Say What?

May 24, 2018

My BFF, Wendy, and I had an ongoing shtick throughout college. We’d be making normal conversation, then we’d follow the last sentence with, “she said.” We often added adverbs for fun. For instance, if I was trying to talk Wendy into going to a concert with me that night, I’d follow it with, “. . . she said hopefully.” We got crazy mileage and endless mutual appreciation out of this little verbal tic that made everyone around us roll their eyes.

I can’t swear to it, but I’m guessing I’m the one who set this silly trope in motion. Why? Because I spend my life actually subconsciously adding, “. . . she said” after I say something aloud. It’s the writer in me. Conversation isn’t conversation, it’s dialogue. I spend so much time writing dialogue for imaginary characters that I can virtually visualize the quotation marks around my real-life words.

Dialogue is my favorite part of writing, a way to fully immerse myself in a make-believe person and to bring that character to life. More importantly, it’s a way to pull the reader directly into the scene. This being the case, it’s downright vital to nail dialogue. I often read it aloud after I write it to make sure it sounds authentic, believable, conversational. And it has to pass the smell test not only in general, but regarding that specific character. Does the teen protagonist sprinkle her vocab with a Valley Girl seasoning of “like” and “awesome”? Does her stuffy mom communicate passive-aggressively? Does a loving but taciturn dad infuse five times the meaning into a tiny fraction of the words?

As fun as this challenge is, it’s also fraught. It’s ridiculously easy for dialogue that sounds authentic on first blush to actually read as cheesy. The death knell of a character (and therefore of the writer) is dialogue that inadvertently morphs into stereotype or caricature. Think “precocious kid” characters on sitcoms. A light touch is essential in keeping the characters believable. As soon as viewers hear an overly glib writer’s dialogue tripping off a toddler’s tongue, the jig is up. Yes, it might be somewhat entertaining to hear a cute kid say something impossibly clever or incisive, but if the line is off-the-charts improbable, the viewer is no longer immersed in the character. He is instead immersed in the craft of the writer . . . meaning the craft has tanked.

Of course, novels don’t have the advantage of visuals, so the onus is even more stringent to ensure the dialogue jumps from the pages into the reader’s imagination.

The hardest time for me to nail this in book-writing is during the denouement of a suspense novel. Several of my young-adult novels involve some sort of mystery: What exactly is Shannon’s diary alluding to that has caused her to feel so hostile toward her parents? Why is Maureen so wary of her son’s girlfriend? What does the whole family know that Forrest doesn’t? These kinds of plots, of course, require resolution. The secrets must be unveiled, and their unveiling should be the most rewarding and satisfying part of the novel. (“Aaaaahhhh . . . now it all makes sense,” you hope the reader is saying.)

But the denouement should be graceful and natural, not a desultory recitation of facts like you’d find in the last two minutes of a Scooby Doo episode as the villains explain their evil plans. (“. . . and if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids. . .!”) Achieving “graceful and natural” was particularly arduous in my novel, “Tragedy Girl,” in which a convoluted plot had to ultimately be unraveled. The dialogue has the heavy lifting of making everything clear.

Heavy lifting with a light touch: that’s the challenge of writing dialogue.

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© 2018 Christine Hurley Deriso