Writing - Dialogue
( Originally Published 1922 )
What Good Dialogue Must Do.-- Good dialogue must be convincing in quality, must portray exactly and suggestively the character from whom the speech comes. The reader will be as quick to observe falsity of speech as he is in natural life when a person with little or no education attempts to use words of whose exact meaning he is in doubt.
Characters Must Clearly Identify Themselves.—Just as the characters are easily differentiated from each other, so must the talk of each major individual be readily distinguish-able from the speech of all other characters, so different, in fact, that we may be able to identify by the speeches alone the characters to whom they belong. This does not mean, of course, that each character should carry continually with him a set manner of speech. As Arlowe Bates observes, the use of "quotation marks does not convert a passage into dialogue." There are occasions under which even a quiet individual may break into a frenzy of rage. Again, an individual backward and halting in speech may, in an emergency, rise to the severe exigencies of the situation and show that his slowness to speech is acquired and not innate. Yet, no matter under what emotion the character may come, his speech must remain consistent with his nature in its larger aspects. No matter what a character may say, we, in reading his speeches, must be able to observe that it is entirely possible from what we know and understand of the man.
Dialogue as Depicting the Character's Mood.—Dialogue should portray a character's mood. At many points in emotional stories, made up of several minor and one major crises, the characters constantly will be under the influence of stirring feelings which they must explain. It is the author's part to translate these emotions in an understandable manner and, through their enunciation, bring out the character's personality.
Dialogue Must Concern Itself Strictly With Development of Story.—In a short story, the dialogue should never be allowed to digress from the development of the plot, as it does in many of the early nineteenth century novels, especially those of Dickens. When characters are allowed to tell personal experiences and to chirp on in a manner which brings out their humorous characteristics, they are not helping along the story. Every bit of dialogue in the short story should be absolutely indispensable, so that, if any be left out, the sense of the story will be spoiled. The use of dialogue is to further, to push on, the action of the plot. The story moves by the emotions and thoughts of the characters; and, as dialogue portrays both thought and emotion, the story progresses rapidly by the correct use of dialogue.
Each speech should contain the hint of that which is to follow. The story dialogue may be so suggestive as to tell in a few words the relations of the characters, what brought them together, and what of importance has happened.
Purpose of Dialogue.—It should be remembered, first and all the time, that dialogue is employed to make a story attractive. Life is made up of conversation among persons. Those persons would hardly be satisfied to exchange greetings by letter. Man is a social member—he progresses by contact with other men. Hence, the liking for dialogue in stories finds its origin in human nature itself. Nothing is more invigorating and entertaining than living, characteristic, and pregnant dialogue. As Professor Genung has excellently stated :
If in the characters is involved the profounder fibre of the story, from the management of the dialogue comes largely its more buoyant and popular effect. Uncritical Examples of Dialogue.—We are appending three examples of dialogue, the first from "A Sisterly Scheme," by H. C. Bunner. The second example is from Kipling's "Mulvaney" series, and is given to show how far one may go in giving dialect. The last one, from 0. Henry, shows that slang may be free from all vulgarity and still be replete with humor.
"Your sister," replied the young man with dignity, "was to have gone fishing with me; but she remembered at the last moment that she had a prior engagement with Mr. Brown."
"She hadn't," said the girl. "I heard them make it up last evening, after you went upstairs."
The young man clean forgot himself.
"She's the most heartless coquette in the world!" he cried, and clinched his hands.
"She is all that," said the young person on the string-piece of the dock, "and more, too. And yet, I suppose, you want her all the same?"
"I'm afraid I do," said the young man, miserably.
"Well," said the girl, putting her shoe on again, and beginning to tie it up, "I'll tell you what it is, Mr. Morpeth. You've been hanging around Pauline for a year, and you are the only one of the men she keeps on a string who hasn't snubbed me. Now, if you want me to, I'll give you a lift."
"A lift. You're wasting your time. Pauline has no use for devotion. It's a drug in the market with her—has been for five seasons. There's only one way to get her worked up. Two fellows tried it, and they nearly got there; but they weren't game enough to stay to the bitter end. I think you're game, and I'll tell you. You've got to make her jealous."
"Make her jealous of me?"
"No!" said his friend, with infinite scorn; "make her jealous of the other girl. Oh! but you men are stupid!"
"Well, Flossy," he began, and then he became conscious of a sudden change in the atmosphere, and perceived that the young lady was regarding him with a look that might have chilled his soul.
"Miss Flossy—Miss Belton—" he hastily corrected him-self. Winter promptly changed to Summer in Miss Flossy Belton's expressive face.
"Your scheme," he went on, "is a good one. Only—it involves the discovery of another girl."
"Yes," assented Miss Flossy, cheerfully.
"Well," said the young man, "doesn't it strike you that if I were to develop a sudden admiration for any one of those other young ladies whose charms I have hitherto neglected, it would come tardy off—lack artistic verisimilitude, so to speak?"
"Rather," was Miss Flossy's prompt and frank response; "especially as there isn't one of them fit to flirt with."
"Well, then, where am I to discover the girl?"
Miss Flossy untied and retied her shoe. Then she said calmly :
"What's the matter with—" a hardly perceptible hesitation—"me?"
"Eyah ! That was great times. I'm old now ; me hide's wore off in patches; sinthrygo has disconcerted me, an' I'm a married man too. But I've had my day, an nothin' can take away the taste av that ! Oh my time past, whin I put me foot through ivry livin' wan av the Tin Commandmints between Revelly and Lights Out, blew the froth off a pewter, wiped me moustache wid the back av me hand, an' slept on it all as quiet as a little child ! But it's over—it's over, an' 'twill niver come back to me; not though I prayed for a week av Sundays. Was there any wan in the Ould Rig'mint to touch Corp'ril Terence Mulvaney whin that same was turned out for sedukshin? I niver met him. Ivry woman that was not a witch was worth the runnin' afther in those days, an' ivry man was my dearest f rind or—I had stripped to him an' we knew which was the better av the tu."
"Cheese it," said the captain harshly. "I'm not hogging it yet. It's all on the outside. I went around on Essex and proposed marriage to that Catrina that's got the fruit shop there. Now, that business could be built up. She's a peach as far as a Dago could be. I thought I had that senoreena mashed sure last week. But look what she done to me! I guess I got too fresh. Well, there's another scheme queered."
"You don't mean to say," said Murray, with infinite contempt, "that you would have married that woman to help yourself out of your disgraceful troubles!"
"Me," said the captain. "I'd marry the Empress of China for one bowl of chop suey. I'd commit murder for a plate of beef stew. I'd steal a wafer from a waif. I'd be a Mormon for a bowl of chowder."
"I think," said Murray, resting his head on his hands. "that I would play Judas for the price of one drink of whiskey. For thirty pieces of silver I would "
"Oh, come now!" exclaimed the captain in dismay. "You wouldn't do that, Murray? I always thought that Kike's squeal on his boss was about the lowest-down play that ever happened. A man that gives his friend away is worse than a pirate."