Dialogue is an important element of writing fiction. Even a book filled with the most wonderfully lyrical prose can be derailed by characters spouting tin eared speech. Today’s post not only examines the importance of dialogue, but more specifically how even the smallest tweaks (regardless of how innocuous the exchange may seem) can shape your characters in more ways than you would believe. This will be demonstrated with the differences between the responses, “Is it?” and “It is?”
So, let’s say you’re writing a first-rate thriller novel called ‘The Murdering’ with the outstandingly original characters Tom and Janet. Tom comes home late, despite numerous news bulletins warning that a serial killer is on the loose, victimizing sad sack businessmen with decaying marriages, which Tom just so happens to be. As he stands in the foyer, shedding his coat, concerned wife Janet enters the picture and comments, “You’re late.” Tom glanced up at her. “It’s raining,” he responded. Now, it’s Janet’s big moment. “It is?” she said. Okay. Now based on that response, what can we deduce about Janet?
For starters, “It is?”, regardless of the modifiers and tags that may follow or precede it, will almost always be read in our minds with a challenging, doubtful tone. We almost expect, “Are you sure?” to immediately follow the inquiry. The character shows no sign of conceding to the fact that it may be raining outside and caused Tom to be late. It can be read as stating this semi-question as a polite alternative to, “No, it’s not. You’re a lying scumbag, Tom. You’re seeing her again, aren’t you? I hope you get knocked off by that very specific serial killer on the loose,” or simply as a device to buy more time, so they can phrase their disagreement in more diplomatic terms.
Regardless, it is sharp, almost bordering on an accusation when uttered. You’ve established character with this response. You’ve established conflict. There is drama in Tom and Janet’s once picturesque marriage and you have laid the foundation for it without having to steer the reader and use less than exciting telling-not-showing prose like: Tom and Janet are not happy. Their marriage is on the rocks. They haven’t slept together in months. Tom stays out late. Janet suspects he might be seeing someone. Tom and Janet might need to hire a better writer to chronicle their lives. Blah, blah, blah.
Okay. Let’s try again with a different response in this rather generic prompt. Tom arrived home. He shed his coat, surprisingly unmudered. Janet leaned against the bannister, her nightgown fluttering open. “Where were you?” she questioned. “It’s raining,” Tom responded. “Is it?” Janet said. “Is it?” is a more passive response. It signals a concession, an ignorance to the conditions outside and in its passive nature forgives Tom for being late in these businessmen being murdered by serial killers like conditions that the business community is forced to endure. We can almost hear Janet whispering it to her estranged husband in a euphoric haze. Maybe she just popped a few Xanax beforehand. Maybe she just finished reading the Glass Menagerie. Well, these deductions might be a little much, but you get the picture. Just by flipping these two little words, you’ve shaped your character in a completely different way.
Now, we can’t expect the reader to grasp all that information from a little bit of dialogue and to be honest, you might not have wanted to imply nearly that much. Maybe you wanted a simple exchange between your characters. That’s fine. What this comes down to is authenticity. Choose the correct line of dialogue for your character and you will have cut a little notch into their personality. If you stay true to them throughout your story, you will lend them the authenticity both you and the reader desire. So, what do you hear your Janet saying to your Tom when he comes home late? Is she passive? Is she aggressive? Is she packing a bag while she says it? Sharpening a knife? Watching their wedding video? Working on a bike in the garage? Either way, it is important to remember that there is no bit of dialogue too small to ignore.