By Mike MacLean
It can be argued that dialogue plays two major roles in storytelling.
First, it may expose something about a character–their background, personality, temperament, etc.
Secondly, it can be a means to move the story along, revealing important details about the plot.
But is one of these more important than the other?
Those who write character driven stories would likely argue that dialogue is best when it helps paint human portraits. When done well, slang or accents are like brushstrokes, adding layers of color and depth. They wrap the raw bones of a character with flesh so they read like real human beings.
However, when not done well–when reduced to the level of stereotype–slang and accents can have the reverse effect. Hit a false note, and you risk making your reader cringe. Instead of ringing true, the character’s voice sounds like a construction, and the character then becomes merely a plot device. Nothing pulls me out of a story quicker.
Even if dialogue rings true, too much regional flavor can wear thin. The British pulp classic Yardie is a prime example.
I admired author Victor Headly’s ruthless, stripped-down prose. His dialogue, however, was so filled with Jamaican and British vernacular that I got lost in all the verbiage.
I didn’t doubt the authenticity of Headly’s characters, and their words added spice to the story. But all in all, I would have preferred to know what the hell they were talking about. At least once in a while. ‘ere da ting star, guess me no boo-yackiest! (For the record, I still give Yardie a thumbs up and would like to see more of his work hit the States)
Those who see dialogue primarily as means to move the plot along face the opposite problem: creating dry, inhuman voices. Sure readers will understand every word uttered, but we won’t care because we won’t identify with the characters. We won’t feel they are truly human.
In my work, I tend to write lean dialogue with occasional dashes of vernacular sprinkled in for flavor. When it works, I feel I’ve skated between the two roles of dialogue, achieving the best of both worlds. When it doesn’t work, (which is more often than I’d like to admit) my characters sound like automatons, each speaking with the same voice.
So let’s hear it, murder fans.
What style of dialogue do you find most effective?
When reading dialogue, what makes you roll your eyes?