Whether you are a strong advocate of Show vs. Tell, or you find it an overused instruction that’s oft misused, one thing is for certain: dialogue is always considered showing.
There are some people who don’t really understand why this is so, to them dialogue often seems the very opposite of showing: people telling each other things.
The reason isn’t do with what is being said—the content of speech can be all telling and it would still be considered showing—but because you are enabling the reader to visualise what’s happening in the scene. Someone is talking.
That’s the point of showing, so the reader gets a clear picture of what’s going on. And when you are vague or generic or refer to something in approximate terms, that becomes more difficult.
The difference between:
Dave entered the room looking sad.
“Dave looks sad,” said Jane.
is that the focus is on Dave in the first version, and on the person speaking in the second.
However, just because we can see clearly that Jane is speaking, does not automatically make what she says interesting. Whenever you show something happening, that’s only one step towards making it worth reading about, and that’s just as true for dialogue as anything else.
So, whatever your attitude towards Show vs. Tell, as soon as you write dialogue you are in showing mode, and since that’s the case there are numerous things you can do to exploit that to the story’s advantage. Other than the emotion of the person speaking (which comes naturally to most writers) there are a host of other things dialogue enables you to convey to the reader.
If you open up any half-decent book at random and start reading a section of dialogue, you may not be able to tell exactly what they’re talking about, but you should always be able to tell what kind of relationship the people speaking have. Does one know more than the other? Does one have seniority? What is the level of urgency of their discussion? Casual conversation or vital revelation? What emotions are they inhabiting?
The thing you want to avoid is for things to slowly become apparent. By ‘things’ I don’t mean the content of their speech (the information in the dialogue can be teased out over the length of the conversation or even longer), I’m referring to the tone of the conversation (all the things I mentioned above).
Tone should be apparent from the outset.
This may be different to how speech sounds in real life. In a real recorded conversation there are times when you may not be able to tell who’s who or what’s what. But generally even in real life situations you can very rapidly get a rough idea of tone. And in a fictional conversation that should always be the case unless you intentionally want the effect of ambiguity. Otherwise it should be almost immediately obvious the kind of conversation is being had and the dynamic between the people having it.
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