Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Dialogue: the best action

David crept along the ledge to the window, traffic forty floors below. He slipped the flat steel jimmy between the frame and the latch. A quick jerk. The window bulged. The latch held. Sweating, his teeth bared with the effort, he repositioned the steel and jerked again. The window's metal frame groaned. Now he had no time; they'd be investigating the noise in seconds. He braced his heels on the ledge and rammed the steel home. The window jumped open, he was through and into the darkness as the light in the hallway flicked on.

Exciting stuff! But even Tom Clancy doesn't write exclusively in descriptive prose. Novels are about people (yes, I know Black Beauty was a horse, but a personified horse) and we best understand people through what they say. Two men having a fistfight can enthrall, but two men arguing is even more gripping, because we see the conflict of their minds as well as of their bodies. This is why Hollywood often has improbable conversations held in the middle of such fights:

"I knew you'd never accept that our rules applied to you."
Bash! Pow!
"No – they're for little men – like you, Georgie."
Biff! Slam!

If you've ever overheard an argument between two people, you know how riveting it can be. Even two people debating where to meet later will make you stop reading to listen. If you want to glue your readers to your pages, get your characters talking. The more dialogue there is, the more interesting it will be.

    "I can't believe you could leave Coopersville just like that!"
    "You of all people should know why I am."
    "Oh, Johnny, you take things to heart. I was having a joke, a silly joke."
    "You should know when the time for joking's over."

Dialogue is more interesting than description because it tells us more. Dialogue provides greater magnification into a person's soul and with more immediacy than description. The 43 words of the snatch of dialogue above tells us much more about these two people than the 94 words tells us about the cat burglar David. Johnny is a serious young man in love with the girl and the girl is contrite, though not contrite enough to apologise properly.

But not all dialogue works. Sloppy, dull dialogue that simply reproduces the way we talk every day is unreadable. Here's a conversation from real life:

    "Put peanut butter on the, y'know, list."
    "Peanut butter?!"
    "What for? I already know that, uh, we've got plenty. Lots."
    "Right now, maybe. Not for long, though."
    "What's that supposed to mean?"
    "When that brother-in-law of yours gets here, we sure won't."

Dialogue in fiction is not supposed to reproduce this every-day speech, it is supposed to mimic it, sounding real while actually being terser, tauter, and to the point:

    "Put peanut butter on the list."
    "We've got plenty."
    "Once that brother-in-law of yours gets here, we won't."

Dialogue, written properly, reveals the inner thoughts of your characters, shows their conscious intentions, propels action both by causing something to happen (a change of mind, a change or heart, an action undertaken or hindered) and by enriching the connections between the characters. You can't achieve all that with description or with interior monologue. Dialogue is a universal tool: it can do everything, as long as you have at least two people. Imagine a pair of cat burglars on that window ledge and remove all the description, just for fun:

    "Pass me the jimmy. Okay, nice and easy..."
    "It won't open!"
    "The latch is stronger than I thought. Help me push this in further."
    "That ought to...oh, God, they could hear that a mile away! And it's still stuck."
    "One more time. Push! Now: one--two--three--"
    "That's it! Inside, quick!"

You obviously can't write a whole novel in pure dialogue, although radio drama had to, with the occasional sound effect, and worked thrillingly, but tense, crisp dialogue with the smallest amount of supporting description will give you a limpid, muscular prose style that is clear and easy to read. It will also grip your reader far better than stodgy lumps of description. Let your dialogue tell the story:

    The window jumped open. They were through and into the darkness as the light in the hallway flicked on.
    "I ain't imagining things," Raymond was saying as he came in. "There was definitely a noise."
    "It's the window. Someone forgot to lock the damn thing." Bill tried to latch it. "Christ! It's busted!"
    "That means he's in here –"
    "Shaddup," said Bill. A pause. "Okay, David, come on out."
    "Don't do this, Davey boy," Raymond pleaded to the darkness. "We're you're own flesh and blood. It ain't –"
    David heard a click of a safety coming off.
    "Bill, you can't – not to Da –"
    A faint "damn" beside him; Teresa was slipping her Beretta from her pocket.
    "No!" David hissed.

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