Tyra Tanner

When Dialogue Fails

“I am a villain, and I will tell you all about my villainous plans before I actually get around to doing any of said villainy! So be afraid. Be very afraid!”

Let’s talk about dialogue, as in, when characters speak. These characters are living, breathing people (as least us writers like to think so), and we painstakingly describe their circumstances and lovingly paint the scenes around them, and finally, when it’s their turn to utter words and let the reader hear them without filter, what do we writers do sometimes? We have our character spit out exactly what they are thinking.

Here’s the thing. People rarely tell other people their inner thoughts. Even ordinary exchanges are coated in polite layers.

Let me show you what I mean.

The situation: A prince is ordered by his father the king to go down to docks to purchase slaves.

King: “You will go to the docks and buy some slaves.”
Prince: “Father, why must we keep slaves?”
King: “Because I am King. And I said so.”
Prince: “But it’s wrong, Father. There must be a better way.”
King: “Wrong! The only wrong here is my son disobeying me!”
Prince: “I won’t go to the docks.”
King: “You will go or be clasped in irons yourself!”

Just to be clear, the dialogue above is zombie dialogue. It’s dead and lifeless, but it moans from time to time as if to draw attention to itself.

What’s wrong with this dialogue is that it’s being used to TELL the reader that the Prince is good and the King is evil.

BUT…if these two characters were real, the Prince would already know what his father is like, and the King would already sense that his son doesn’t approve of his methods, because their relationship isn’t starting here, it’s been going on for the Prince’s entire life (let’s say he's twenty), and so let’s dig a little deeper and try this exchange again.

King: “Hubert expects you to accompany him this morning.”
Prince: “I’m afraid I’ve already scheduled an archery lesson.”
King: “Hubert can’t make these decisions alone. He needs a Prince’s eye. You will do him a great service to guide him.”
Prince: “With all due respect, sir, Hubert is far more experienced in picking out slaves. He’s much more familiar with the going rate for man flesh.”
King: “Then no better opportunity for you acquire the knowledge yourself.”
Prince: “As I said, I have an archery lesson.”
King: “The kingdom doesn’t need another archer. It needs a prince who knows his place.”

I hope the second example appeals to you more as a reader. There’s an added layer of subtlety because the Prince’s true feelings are disguised. He doesn’t come right out and say to his father that he hates slavery, which is a good thing, because it changes the scene from being a TELL where we simply say, oi, reader, the Prince is good and the King is bad, to becoming a REVEAL where we show that the Prince is trying to get out of going to the docks, and whether in this scene or a later one, we would eventually reveal his motivation for doing so, which will slam home the point much better, the point being that our Prince is the hero of this tale, and we should love him.

So all you writers out there, grab your sabers and stand resolute before the hordes of zombie dialogue, ready to conquer. Zombie apocalypse, baby!