By Kathryne Squilla
I recently listened to a great segment on NPR’s Morning Edition in which the author Mallory Ortberg discussed her new book, TEXTS FROM JANE EYRE. In the book, Ortberg, a humorist who often turns her satirizing eye to western literature, imagined what many of the greatest characters from the history of the novel would say to each other if they all had smartphones and were communicating via text message. The examples she gave made me laugh out loud, but after the segment was over I got to thinking more seriously about dialogue. We often hear about how modern technology has “dumbed down” the way we communicate, or how young people devalue the importance of face-to-face conversation with their ultra abbreviated text speak. But it occurred to me as I thought about Ortberg’s book that many a fiction writer today might glean something from your average text conversation: namely, brevity.
As an editor I often meet fiction writers who are struggling with dialogue. It isn’t easy (little to do with writing is), and it can make or break a novel. You might have a brilliant plot, multidimensional characters, and fresh narrative descriptions, but if your dialogue is clunky, unnatural, or overwrought, you’re sunk. Often times the problem is simply that the characters are saying too much. Of course I’m not suggesting all dialogue be reduced to the contents of a text message, but when we send texts we say what we need to say as quickly and efficiently as we can, and this approach works in fiction writing as well. In addition, we usually only send text messages to the people with whom we are most familiar, and when two people are well known to each other, there is much that goes unsaid because it is already understood. I believe the true art of dialogue writing can be found in what the author choses not to have his characters explicitly say, yet conveys to the reader nonetheless.
Edith Wharton, in her essay The Writing of Fiction, described narrative as “the substance of the novel” and dialogue as “an adjunct to be used skillfully and sparingly as the drop of condiment which flavors a whole dish.” Or more poetically: “The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.”
We may not always be able to compose dialogue that is like the spray of a metaphorical wave, but we can certainly embrace Edith’s words as an exemplary guide. When it comes to writing dialogue, less is more.