on writing dialog

Stoppard

As most of us aren’t Tom Stoppard (in fact, I’d guess nobody reading this is Tom Stoppard, but do compare your face in the mirror to the picture to be absolutely sure), and as I get a lot of questions from people on the mechanics of writing in general and dialog in particular, I thought I could put up a few points. Not all at once, but now and then. These are from my teaching notes.

(If it turns out that you are Tom Stoppard, we’ll carry on without you. On the other hand, if you find this kind of thing interesting or of use, please let me know.)

Before beginning, a word to the wise in the form of an Italian proverb: Do not remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with an axe. (I ask you, who but an Italian would think it necessary to state this?)

So here goes.

1. Dialogue must never convey information alone. It must accomplish more than one thing at once to earn its keep. It may:
characterize,
advance the action,
provide exposition
(introduce theme/characters),
provide setting,
foreshadow,
convey information.

2. Conversely, a line of dialog shouldn’t do all those things at once because then it will probably slip over the line (or march proudly over the line, better said) into the realm called (so elegantly) info dumping. Here’s an example (it’s fun to make examples of info dumping; but then I’m easily amused).

“But Joan, you went to law school because you adore your mother who has a law degree from Yale and worked for two years in the Eisenhower administration as White House Council.”

That is, never convey backstory in dialog. Very tacky.

banter

Henslow

HENSLOWE
Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the
{theater/writing/storytelling} business.
The natural condition is one of
insurmountable obstacles on the road
to imminent disaster.

FENNYMAN
So what do we do?

HENSLOWE
Nothing. Strangely enough, it all
turns out well.

FENNYMAN
How?

HENSLOWE
I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

from Shakespeare in Love, by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard