Elizabeth Bowen's Rules of Dialogue:
- Dialogue should be brief
- It should add to the reader's present knowledge
- It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation
- It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk
- It should keep the story moving forward
- It should be revelatory to the speaker's character, both directly and indirectly
- It should show the relationships among people
A few extra points that I could squeeze from my class notes...
- One thought at a time.
- Over three sentences per speech runs into danger.
- If dialogue does run into speech, break it up with interruptions by other speakers, by actions, or thoughts, or convince the reader the speech is important.
- Dialogue should allow the reader to read as much as possible between the lines, in what is left out, and in the stage directions, actions, and gestures that accompany the dialogue.
- One of the most important purposes of speech is to express character.
As I was typing out #3 on the list, I got to thinking of when I was a teenager and read '1984' by George Orwell. Early on in the story a character, a political leader I think, goes into a long speech to give us an idea of their futuristic environment. The speech must have went on for at least 14 or 15 pages and I almost put the book down. Luckily, I am a patient man and the wait paid off.
Has anyone else got to the point of giving up on a book as a result of cumbersome dialogue?