Silence is Not Golden

By Alistair Cross

The dialogue in a story is like the dressing on a salad: It may not be the crux of the thing, but for better or worse, it decides the overall flavor. Good dialogue can move an otherwise mediocre story along relatively well, while bad dialogue can drag a brilliant one down into the pits of utter suckdom in just a few bad lines.
Arguably one of the most important elements of a story, dialogue can also be one of the most difficult. For some, it’s intimidating and the obvious temptation is to avoid it altogether, giving the reader a lot of ongoing exposition. And no one likes too much exposition.
Exposition is what an author uses to convey back story, setting, theme, and description. In short, it’s an information dump – and while necessary to a point, the general rule of exposition is this: A little goes a long way. The trouble with too much presentation and not enough activity is that it disengages the reader. We’ve all read it: page after page of information that supposedly needs remembering. Often times, we skim over it to get to the “action” and find at the end of the story that we didn’t really miss anything. But as a writer, the temptation is real.
As much as I’d sometimes like to spend entire chapters setting the scene, waxing monotonous about my characters’ pasts, and describing the living room as eloquently as I can, I’ve learned to heed the power of strong dialogue. Here are some things I’ve learned that helped me sharpen my skills.
The first is to listen: Key into the dialogue between strangers on elevators, lovers in restaurants, and parents chastising their children. Eavesdrop shamelessly and you’ll soon learn that nine-year-old boys don’t speak the same way as women in their fifties do. City slickers and folks from small towns tend to have very different linguistic habits. People from different generations don’t use the same word choices. There are a million ways in which semantic patterns differ from person to person and listening to the people around you is a good place to start identifying and understanding those differences.
Another great way to build your dialogue muscle is to read actively. This means you’re not reading just for enjoyment, but to learn, as well. By analyzing the author’s process and understanding what she’s doing, why she’s doing it, and how she’s doing it, you’re well on your way to a free education in Creative Writing. Pay close attention to how the author not only chooses his words, but when he chooses to insert them. Note how one character responds to another and gauge your own emotional responses. Were you riveted? Saddened? Relieved? Terrified? Now ask yourself why. Go back and re-read the lines that hooked you and try to determine exactly what the author did to inspire that response.
Dialogue is the lubricant of the story – the grease that keeps the wheels turning. It can be used to convey personality, define relationships between characters, and even set the scene more vividly. It’s a way to show rather than tell. But most of all, it’s a powerful way to divulge necessary information … and if the dialogue is witty and fresh enough, no one will even notice that they’re reading back story.
There are endless ways to learn to write strong dialogue, but all of them come down to simply listening. Listen, experiment, listen some more, and just keep writing. But whatever you do, don’t be so intimidated that you resort to bombarding the reader with page after page of commentary when there’s opportunity for conversation between your characters. Don’t be seduced by the silence.

When it comes to powerful storytelling, silence is not golden.