I love shopping for books in a brick-and-mortar store, where I can pick up a novel and flip through the pages. If I have time, I might look at dozens. I give covers a cursory glance, more because I appreciate good cover art than the influence it makes on my purchasing decisions. Of course, I check out the synopsis on the back cover, so I can get an idea of the plot and characters. Too often, this hasn’t been enough for me to know I’ll like, or at least finish reading, a novel. More often than not, I’m standing in the science fiction and fantasy section of the store, and I find something appealing in every book synopsis I read. To narrow down my choices, to eliminate the novels I know I will shelve unfinished, I page through them randomly, seeking out the element that consistently awards me with satisfying reads.
Great dialogue is the key to my reading happiness. It’s also easy to locate. I like to turn to the middle of the book because it shouldn’t matter if I know the plot. The dialogue will reveal the things vital to my reading enjoyment time and time again, and after a few nearly random selections, I’ll know whether I’ve selected a novel that will have me turning pages far past my bedtime.
The quality of the dialogue is itself important. I want to be able to hear it in my mind as I’m reading it and appreciate it, first and foremost, as a means of communication. Surely it should differ among the characters. It should also vary and show emotion, not just with what is said but with the nonverbal communication that the characters convey, purposely or otherwise. Facial expressions, fidgeting, and hand gestures, or lack of them, provide opportunities to show that each character is a unique person, and they should sound like living people who breathe and have emotions.
Dialogue should also provide me with windows into the characters. It’s a way for the author to describe the players in the drama through their speech. Are they educated? Do they have senses of humor? What are their temperaments? Are they comfortable speaking, or would they prefer to let actions speak for them? If the dialogue can tell me this much about the characters, I can be fairly certain that I won’t have to suffer through needless and boring exposition. Some characters speak more than they do anything else, and that in itself communicates volumes about them.
My first set of examples is from “The Blade Itself”, by Joe Abercrombie. Believe it or not, I had never heard of him when I found the trade paperback in a used book store, and it sat on the shelf without any of his other titles displayed to show me just how many he had written. The synopsis focused on the characters, and at first glance they seemed like archetypes from a Dungeons & Dragons manual. The cover, simple with the look of blood-spattered parchment, didn’t sell me either. Here are some samples of dialogue that let me know the book would come home with me.
“Axes and maces and so forth are lethal enough, but they hang on the belt like dumb brutes.” He ran an eye over the hilt, plain cold metal scored with faint grooves for a good grip, glinting in the torchlight. “But a sword…a sword has a voice.” In this quote, I learned that someone was being given a sword by someone who understood a weapon’s importance to a man of martial prowess. I love a nice, good sword fight in my fantasy novels, and this told me I could count on at least one. What’s more, I bet that there was something special about this sword, something the speaker knew but wasn’t revealing.
“I do apologize for that. I know it’s quite uncomfortable, but clothes can hide things. Leave a man his clothes and you leave him pride, and dignity, and all kinds of things it’s better not to have in here. I never question a prisoner with their clothes on.” From the synopsis, I knew that an Inquisitor would be conducting investigations, and this helped paint a picture that he clearly enjoyed his job. I imagined that I would love hating this guy!
“We’ve been ordered north immediately, meaning as soon as anyone can be bothered to supply me with men and arms. The King, meaning that drunkard, Hoff, has commanded me to bring these Northmen to heel.” This tidbit gave me a little insight into one of the armies readying for battle. It told me that depictions of the military were likely to be realistic, with plenty of details about meddlesome bureaucracy and other complications, making for fun twists and turns.
My second rewarding find was the first novel by Col Buchanan, “Farlander”. The cover and synopsis promised master and apprentice assassins, and the endorsement by one of my long favorite fantasy authors, Glen Cook, grabbed my attention. The real magic was inside. Here are some examples of dialogue that led me to the cash register with this book in hand.
“You want me to train as Roshun?” Nico managed. “Are you mad?” The would-be assassin’s apprentice didn’t sound very enthusiastic. In fact, he sounded scared to death just to go through the training involved. That triggered my interest in his coming ordeal and also in the eventual confrontation with his fear. I wanted to learn more about the feared and mysterious assassains.
“They almost had us last night. Even now, as we speak, they’re likely combing the city for us. All of us are outlanders here, save for you. It’s only a matter of time before they find us out. This is hardly a friendly city in which to linger, in case you hadn’t noticed.” I could tell here that there was an argument over a plan, and the protagonists were in a difficult situation with enemies on all sides. There was obvious disagreement among the team of characters, which makes any story more complicated and fun to read. The speaker seemed like the type to grow bitter under the stress of danger as well.
There have been many shopping trips when I’ve come home from the book store empty handed. It’s disappointing when that happens, but not as heartbreaking as investing my time and imagination in a novel that fails to deliver what I crave. Dialogue plays such a huge role in character development, the main reason that I read fiction. Without finding greatness in the dialogue, I’ll happily re-read some of my favorites instead of buying anything new. It makes me work hard to come up with good dialogue for characters in my own writing as well.
Aaron L. Hamilton is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He grew up in frigid Upstate New York but now lives with his family in Raleigh, NC. His story, "Catalyst", currently appears in issue #1 of Nonlocal Science Fiction.
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The site where Aaron's story "Catalyst" is featured in issue #1 of Nonlocal Science Fiction