This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’re looking at the elements of a great story, and to help me write about crafting good dialogue, I’m lucky enough to interview fiction dialogue expert Professor S. M. Artmouth, known best for his work at the University of Wordoming.
‘Professor Artmouth, welcome to Aussie Owned and Read.’ I give the professor a big AO&R smile. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here.’
He leans back in his chair and nods. ‘I’m sure it is.’
I blink, then glance down at my notes before the man catches me staring at him open-mouthed. Surely he didn’t just say that?
I clear my throat. ‘You’ve been teaching fiction writing for some time now, and your area of expertise is dialogue. What would you say is the first thing a writer should keep in mind when trying to write good dialogue?’
‘That, Ms … Sorry, what was your name again?’ The man’s bushy brows scrunch above his thin-rimmed glasses.
‘Colmer. Kat Colmer.’
‘Yes, yes.” He waves away my answer like I’d interrupted him. ‘A writer must always ask if their dialogue is essential to the story. It must either advance the plot, reveal character, or reflect theme. If it does none of these, it’s a waste of space and must be done away with.’ Another wave of the hand. Maybe he’s swatting away redundant bits of dialogue?
I shift back a little in my chair so he doesn’t accidentally smack me in the nose. ‘What’s a mistake you see beginner writers make too often?’ I ask.
Professor Artmouth rests his elbows on the arms of his chair and steeples his fingers. The thoughtful contemplation he forces across his face is so comical, it takes everything I have not to laugh.
‘One of the most repeated mistakes I see in the fiction of unseasoned writers is the misuse of dialogue as a way to dump information on the reader. It may not be something that you, a recently published author with no formal education in creative writing, may easily identify in a manuscript. However, someone like myself, a highly esteemed professor of the literary arts, one who presents with a distinct air of intellect and authority as well as above average good looks, can spot a dialogue information dump from the other side of the country.’ He angles his head and gives me a pitying look. ‘Dialogue should never be used to blatantly give the reader information. Any attempt at exposition in dialogue should be in the context of confrontation. Good dialogue simply must include conflict of some sort.’
I grip my question sheet tighter in an attempt to avoid showing this douche of a man a conflict of a very different kind. ‘No gratuitous information dumps. Got it.’ I shift in my chair. Time for another question. ‘What advice would you give writers when it comes to crafting dialogue that’s distinctive to a particular character?’
‘Careful selection of vocabulary,’ he says, adjusting the cuff of his badly ironed shirt.
‘And by that you mean…’
‘By that I mean the vocabulary should fit the character, Ms Colman.’
My smile is forced. ‘It’s Colmer.’
‘Yes, yes.’ Again with the hand wave. ‘Now, let me illustrate. If, for example, you were to base a character on me, you’d want to use complex and elevated vocabulary to make sure the reader understood my character came from the upper class and was highly educated.’
I look down at my notes. ‘And highly conceited.’
I cough. ‘I said, could you please repeat that?’
Artmouth frowns, but he loves the sound of his own voice too much to stop talking. ‘The vocabulary must be right for the character, is what I said.’
‘So we should be realistic in how we represent characters and their speech when writing dialogue.’
‘Yes and no.’ No hand wave this time. Just a smug smile as he leans back in his chair and waits for me to ask him to explain.
I take a slow breath. ‘Please elaborate.’
‘I believe it was Hitchcock who said that great story is life with the boring bits taken out. So it is with great dialogue. We want to give the illusion of real life dialogue with all the mundane parts removed. No one wants to read umms and ahhs after every third word. And don’t get me started on overuse of dialect and colloquialism.’ He rolls his eyes, and a wave of pity for his creative writing students rolls through me.
‘Last question,’ —because I’m so over this interview— ‘I’ve heard it said that good dialogue should be working double duty. What exactly does this mean?’
‘Ah, good question, Ms Colman.’
He ignores me. At least there’s no dismissive hand wav— Wait. There it is.
‘Good dialogue should strive to include …’ Fart— I mean, Artmouth leans forward conspiratorially, like what he’s about to divulge is the holy grail of dialogue writing, ‘…subtext,’ he finally says, and waits for me to be duly impressed. My lack of awe sends him slumping back against his chair. ‘What I mean is, what isn’t said is just as important, if not more so, than what is being said.’
So does he.
The air between us bulges with subtext that isn’t fit for polite conversation.
‘Professor Artmouth, it’s been an experience.’ I offer him my hand, but — surprise, surprise — he waves it away.
‘Yes, yes. I’m certain it has been.’ And with that, Professor S. M. Artmouth proceeds out of the room, followed closely by his overinflated self importance.
For more information on dialogue in fiction without the need to interview pompous fictitious writing professors, I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. He’s got a fantastic chapter on writing and editing dialogue.
Kat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!