Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dialogue Workshop: The Interview

Dialogue is a tricky beast. The key is to make it as natural is possible (when appropriate), but what sounds natural to our ears doesn’t always scan well on the page. I’ve learned a few techniques here and there to deal with different dialogue problems—today, I’m going to talk about how to avoid writing an exchange between two characters that sounds like an interview.

All writers have done this at one time or another. You have two characters and you need to convey some bit of information, so you kick off the dialogue with character #1 asking a question. Character #2 answers the question. Character #1 asks another question. Character #2 answers that question. And it continues on and on with character #1 basically conducting an interview and character #2 adding nothing to the conversation.

For example: let’s say we have two characters, Bob and Joe. Bob has sent Joe to the store to buy some soda. An hour later, Bob finds Joe sprawled on the couch, watching TV.

“Did you go to the store, yet?” said Bob.

“Yeah,” said Joe.

“How long have you been sitting here?”

“A while.”

“Where is my soda?”

“On the counter,” said Joe.

“Why didn’t you put it in the fridge?”

“I forgot.”

“Was there any change?”

“It’s in my coat pocket.”

There is always a place for a character to ask repeated questions, but like all things, it should be used in moderation. This time, I’m going to rewrite the example, eliminating all but one question:

“Did you go to the store, yet?” asked Bob.

“Yeah,” said Joe, “Got back a while ago. Soda’s on the counter.”

“It’s warm.”

“I forgot to put it in the fridge, sorry.”

“You can leave the change on the table,” said Bob.

“It’s in my coat pocket if you want to get it now.”

By eliminating all but one of the questions, you can avoid the monotony of interview-style dialogue. The conversation becomes tighter and Joe has the opportunity to participate and have a little personality.

A different way to combat an interview is to answer a question with a question. This is a particularly good technique when there is tension between the two characters. Here’s the same example again, rewritten with Joe asking some questions of his own:

“How long have you been sitting here?” asked Bob.

“What are you, the TV police?”

“Where is my soda?”

“Where do you think? It’s on the counter,” said Joe.

“You could’ve put it in the fridge.”

“I forgot.”

“Was there any change?”

“Are you worried I’m going to keep it?”

It’s a bit much to counter every question with another one, but you can see how answering a question with another question turns the tables and puts Joe in control of the conversation instead.

Another option is to have Joe avoid answering the questions altogether:

“Did you go to the store, yet?” asked Bob.

“It’s on the counter,” said Joe.

“It’s warm. Why didn’t you put it in the fridge?”

“The change is in my coat pocket.”

In this example, Joe’s answers come across as non sequiturs, but in the context of a larger conversation it would illustrate avoidance and closed off emotions.

Interview-style dialogue sometimes reads like the author is thinking aloud; it's almost as if
he's the one asking the characters what's going to happen next. When you catch yourself in the question and answer cycle, take a moment to dig a little deeper.

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