A few days ago I met up with BigD at Urban Grind, a trendy coffee house with a warehouse feel and interesting art. I was glad, once again, for the excuse to leave my home office, where I had so far accomplished nothing but staring out the window and bugging my ever-patient cat.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about a comment from BigD. Gazing at me from across our laptops, he wondered aloud how to create snappy and realistic dialogue — which is to say, dialogue that achieves a state of verisimilitude; which is to say, dialogue that reads realistically without being realistic; which is to say that if we were to write dialogue as we heard it in everyday life: boring, snooze, zzzzzz. For example:
“I told that guy Todd that we’re, like, so over, and, like, you should have seen his face. I was like, whatever.”
I ask you, who wants to wade through a novel written the way people really talk?
But back to BigD: He provided a sample sentence in which character x says to character y, “You are always so stubborn.” The sentence is awkward, but why exactly? I realized today that if I’d written it, I’d have to accuse myself of an authorial intrusion.
The sentence tells us that character y is a stubborn person, which I might indeed want the reader to know. However, I could convey the same fact through implication, such as having character x state “you stubborn fool,” which implies the same thing and provides information about character x (his opinion about said stubborness). Also, my simplistic example is a bit more snappy and realistic.
My point is that dialogue that smacks of authorial intrusion often lacks verisimilitude. I don’t know how many novels I’ve read where dialogue was used to convey a fact that the author obviously wanted the reader to know. For example, good friends sit in a diner and one says to the other: “But you remember Todd; he’s the investment banker who married my sister Claire last year and then divorced her two months later because he fell in love with me.”
One: If they’re such good friends, why does the nonspeaking character need an in-depth reminder? Two: Even if a reminder is apt, who really talks to a good buddy like this? Three: There are more graceful ways to weave in backstory.
I’m differentiating between using dialogue to pass on data to the reader and using dialogue to show one character passing on data to another character. Hopefully, the latter scenario forwards plot, creates intrigue, develops characters, something.
Dialogue is great fun, but in the end BigD and I agreed that writing it can be tricky. I’m still learning how to tease out my own authorial missteps.