According to Betty Smith in Joy in the Morning, dialogue in literature serves three functions. It should
- Characterize the person speaking.
- Move the plot forward.
- Be interesting in and of itself.
Good dialogue has two of these elements, she says. Great dialogue has all three.
I’m happy if my dialogue hits any two of those notes but most of the time most of us will hit one and carry on. Usually it’s moving the plot forward because we’re writing on deadline and the book is due into the editor next Monday and we don’t have time to pretty things up or look for a Greater Meaning to share.
That doesn’t mean I don’t try, though, and sometimes, serendipitously, lightning does strike. This is one of my favorite lines ever.
“Does he look like he might taste familiar?”
I even put it on a mug.
So let’s evaluate that line by Smith’s rubric.
Does it characterize the person speaking?
Absolutely. Kate is speaking to Mutt as they are tailing a guy in Anchorage Kate thinks attacked them at Canyon Hot Springs, where Mutt instructed him in the error of his ways by taking a chunk out of his behind. Kate asks Mutt a question that begs an actual answer. Kate is a person. Mutt is a dog. This one line says much about each of them individually and speaks volumes more about their relationship.
Does it move the plot forward?
If Mutt answers in the affirmative* (and even if she doesn’t) it lays out Kate’s next course of action, so yes.
Is it interesting in and of itself?
Well. It’s funny, which in my book qualifies as a robust “Yes!”
Mind you, I’m a mere toiler in the mines of genre fiction, chasing after glints of ore that mostly turn out to be mica. My aspirations lend themselves more to telling a good story than writing great literature. But I’ll go on record right here as saying that line satisfies all three of Smith’s principles.
I just wish all of my dialogue did, and I also wish I knew how that line happened in the first place. All I know is it magically appeared in front of me on the screen as I was typing.
I blame Erato. At moments like these I can feel her standing right behind me with a club.
*You’ll have to read it to find out. Here you go. In the meantime…
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.