Still with me? Good. It’s time to take a look between the covers of this lovely, little gem. Here’s an excerpt for you to devour. After you’re done with that, go buy a copy and read the rest.
“Nothing fills a page faster than dialogue,” the writer said.
There it is, the blank page or screen, the intimidating and recurring challenge every writer must face. The temptation is to fill that page as quickly as possible, to advance the narrative however you can. Often the easiest way to do that, even for writers who are not masters of dialogue, is to get the characters talking. A few A few writers are even bold enough to begin novels or stories with a line of dialogue, something I don’t recommend unless you possess the skills of the early Robert A Heinlein, who began his story “Blowups Happen” with the suspenseful line: “Put down that wrench!” Orson Scott Card also opened his popular novel Ender’s Game with a piece of dialogue that immediately rouses the reader’s curiosity: “‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” Writing good and convincing dialogue is usually enough of a challenge without relying on it to hook a reader right at the beginning of one’s story. Writing dialogue, whatever the difficulties, is generally easier than, for example, crafting descriptive passages, offering insights into a character’s psychology, creating vigorous and absorbing action scenes, or presenting necessary exposition in a graceful way.
Writers who harbor dreams of scriptwriting may be especially prone to fill pages with dialogue, but others also succumb, partly because dialogue is a shortcut and a very useful one. Sometimes a few well-chosen words of conversation can accomplish as much in a story as pages of description and exposition. There are also a fair number of readers who are more absorbed by stretches of repartee than by beautifully and poetically rendered descriptions. (Writers meet these people all the time; they’re the ones who tell you they skip all the dull parts, often meaning those carefully wrought passages that cost you so much effort.) Better just to cut to the chase, or in this case, drop in on the conversation.
The strength of dialogue—namely that it can be a useful shortcut—is also its weakness. Writers who rely too much on dialogue risk leaving too much out. The writer may hear the characters clearly and easily envision the scene, but that doesn’t mean that the reader will. (In a review of a novel some years back, Joanna Russ wrote that passages in that book seemed to be largely about names drinking cups of coffee, noticing the designs of ashtrays, or riffing on the furnishings in a room, the characters were so indistinguishable.) The beginning writer is likely to produce dialogue in which the reader will find it hard to tell one character from another. The useful shortcut can produce a story that is sketchy, in which too much has been left out.