Writing dialogue: a tool to give readers objective story ‘truth’

Dialogue has a special place in a reader’s mind

I learned a new technique today by accident.

I was going over FIF (Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction), Chapter 3, Scenes that can’t be cut, when I realized I hadn’t paid enough attention to his section in this chapter on Dialogue.

So I was reading through it as preparation for writing when it occurred to me that, of all the tools a writer has to make a reader believe something, Dialogue is the only one which is not questioned by the reader.

If the writer writes (okay, there are exceptions for unreliable narrators) that a character says something, the reader can almost always – and in some novel, always – believe that, whatever their intent and subtext, those WORDS are being reported accurately.

Not what they mean, but the actual words.

There are quotation marks around the words, and the reader is IN the scene, present for the dialogue, even if through a pov character’s, well, point of view.

The WORDS are accurate.

There is nothing else like this in the experience provided for the reader.

An example

In Maass’ chapter, we consider what a short piece of dialogue from Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader

“…has to accomplish: It has to show that Ann is a true parasensitive, while Rafferty is not, and reveal a morsel of information about the missing Angela.

Dialogue lets Barry accomplish all that with immediacy and tension. We also do not have to believe in second sight. Barry doesn’t force us to accept whether it’s real or not. By remaining objective, with dialogue, she leaves the choice to us, which in a way preserves the mystery of it. More to the point, a sloggy and potentially offputting middle scene has become taut and dramatic. Wouldn’t you like all of your middle scenes to have that effect?” [emphasis mine]

I have been circling this concept when I include in my Left BRAIN righT post and in my write-a-play post instructions to ‘check the dialogue, to make sure it stands on its own.’

For the movie/play version of a story, all we get IS the dialogue (okay, plus the set and the actors – but no thoughts or inner monologues except as voiceovers), and I knew already knew dialogue was important.

But this little insight of Maass’ that the dialogue is somehow OBJECTIVE to the reader is a great big walloping new tool for me as a writer.

Objective story ‘truth’?

I can stretch that concept a bit to say that dialogue delivers objective ‘truth’ WITHIN the story context. Something I want the reader to believe implicitly was actually said – and thus believe that it is true in the story.

Every reader knows dialogue isn’t the whole story – I read a recent estimate that 7% of a message between humans is transmitted purely by DIALOGUE, 55% by BODY LANGUAGE, and the rest by TONE.

But in a STORY, tone and body language are subject to interpretation and suppression. By the characters. By the reader.

Suspension of disbelief

While every line of dialogue in a story is a direct request to the reader for a willing suspension of disbelief.

And the cumulative effect on the reader, who has been listening/reading what we have been reporting as true dialogue since page 1, is that this piece of dialogue, TOO, is true.

Except for the subtle words surrounding the dialogue (thoughts, actions, observations), the reader can look at dialogue as unbiased, OBJECTIVE.

“But you said…!”

Dialogue is the extreme form of SHOW, DON’T TELL. Because we have been trained since birth to take the words as a given, they have more power. Remember arguments as a child over, “But you SAID…!” and the interlocutor’s attempts to weasel out of it? As adults, we take what we hear in dialogue with more caution (“It’s how you said it!” or “My fingers were crossed” can negate part of the words), but we start from there, from assuming the words are true, objective.

Otherwise we’d never be able to communicate as a species.

Using the power of dialogue for truth

So dialogue in fiction carries a certain truth, and if we want that power, we switch into immediate mode and put the words into a character’s mouth.

And unless we do a lot of wiggling AROUND the words, the first assumption of the reader is that they’re objective, and, even if a lie, somehow true. Or at least accurate.

Writing something as dialogue doesn’t make the reader swallow it automatically. But it does give it a huge ‘starting weight’: it will be assumed to be true unless otherwise contradicted by the writer.

That contradiction can come from having set up the character as a liar, ahead of time, or by doing so later and making the reader go back to reinterpret the words, but the initial assumption to the reader (not the other characters necessarily) is that those are the actual words – and they are true.

It’s a bit of a leap, but it works.

‘The snow was starting to come down,’ is the narrator, or an observation by the pov character.

“Look, Mommy! It’s snowing!” is truth, blurted out by a little kid in a red parka and mittens with Frosty, the Snowman on the backs.

We don’t automatically discount either statement – books wouldn’t work if we did – but the second is more powerful.

Accuracy of quotations is assumed

The reader will take most of what the point of view character thinks and observes as truth, depending on the general relationship the reader has with the character on believability, but, in MOST circumstances, will immediately accept that the characters, pov and other, have actually said what is quoted.

The quotation marks – which indicate accurate reporting of actual words – have given the words something nothing else does: truth.

Not bad for a couple of little marks on paper.

Does this make sense?


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