Dialogue in SFF and Beyond (Part Two): Terms from Your History Notebook & Other Smart Reader Things

When last we left you, my stalwart heroes, heroines, and genderqueer unicorns, I was writing about the life-hacks used by some well-known sff authors in writing effective dialogue. You can use these tricks to help get words on the page (consider Caroline Yoachim’s bracket-and-move-on-hack) or to improve their tone, pace, character, and style (as Sarah Pinsker does in staging a scene with voice and action in mind). But when you’re a sff writer, thinking carefully about the specific function of dialogue in genre will go a long way toward helping you choose when to veer into conversation, when to focus on narration, and how to make both do their jobs better for your reader.

Our special guests and writer-sages for this post are Kelly McCullough, Barbara Barnett, and Brandon Crilly. While each of them approached the question of how dialogue functions in sff in their own way, it’s Kelly’s response that gives us our starting vocabulary. His experience as an author of novels for both adults and middle-grade readers over more than a decade of professional writing shows that he understands how to make dialogue work for a variety of audiences. He describes the two types of worldbuilding dialogue can do:

“SFF uses dialogue as both a primary and secondary tool for worldbuilding. … [T]hat’s the main way that I see dialogue being used in a way that is distinct from other genres. For primary worldbuilding we do a lot in terms of the specifics of dialect and word choice within the main language of the story which is similar to the way that say a detective noir piece might use dialogue, but also how we might include created non-human languages or other forms of non-human communication to convey setting and details about what is important in the story.”

Pause there a moment. Primary worldbuilding might have an itch of familiarity in your ear. It should. It’s a cousin of the “primary source,” perhaps a familiar term from your history education. Primary worldbuilding is the evidence of the sfnal world as lived by the people in it: not just the words they say, but how they say them, where, and with whom. It is the speech-action of characters in context. That context is further developed through a kind of domino effect. When one character of a certain social caste speaks, the reader develops expectations that others in the same station will follow similar linguistic patterns. Conlanging (that is, constructing language, in whole or in part) for sfnal worlds also represents in microcosm the critical features of a given society, species, or ecosystem.

Primary worldbuilding through dialogue is an example of what Samuel R. Delany calls “abeyance” in his essay “Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction”. Abeyance is that moment in sff when a writer supplies small, strategic details and withholds larger ones, thus inviting the reader to write into the blank space what else would make sense about this world. For example, if a character goes to pay for something in a shop and, approaching the wrist chip scanner, has to ask about using cash because their last banking app update crashed, and the owner tells them to take a hike, we’ve just learned through this world is no longer a cash-based economy. Thus, sf dialogue can teach readers how to read the text itself by a combination of what it puts in (to get you acclimated) and what it leaves out (to get you to extrapolate).

Of course, that primary worldbuilding through dialogue is only as good as an author’s attention to detail. Consider this point from Barbara Barnett, Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of The Apothecary’s Curse:

“In fantasy, especially historical fantasy (I would include steampunk here as well), make sure the diction matches the period. There’s nothing that takes a reader out of an otherwise gorgeous setting/story than nineteenth century characters that sound like modern (and vice versa).”

Clearly there’s a lot to recommend thoughtful use of primary worldbuilding through dialogue. But it’s the not the only way of doing business. Kelly’s further comments about secondary worldbuilding reveal other options. . . and where things can get a bit problematic.

“…I think of secondary use of dialogue in worldbuilding as a way to convey details about the world of the story within dialogue to maintain reader interest and to avoid obvious infodumps. Readers will put up with a pretty high density of detail if it’s embedded in dialogue that is witty or intense or that moves the story in ways beyond the information being conveyed.”

So a skillful writer can bypass telling us about how many kings ruled in a certain land or how many generations have lived on the generation ship by converting worldbuilding through narration into worldbuilding through dialogue.  That’s a form of secondary worldbuilding (again, borrowing the term from history class): reportage about the world from a voice that’s not truly of that world. Let characters talk to each other about what’s going on in their world and, with a minimum of context, your readers can recognize the abeyance for what it is and come away but entertained and enriched—secondary information from the mouths of primary sources, right?

Well, yes and no. (Remember, I said this can get a bit problematic.)

The Turkey City Lexicon doesn’t list “As You Know, Bob” dialogue as a writing sin for nothing. It’s one of the most tiresome habits authors can lapse into, and its appearance risks taking a reader out of the text. Chances are good that in the first draft, you’ll be stuck between the rock and hard place of AYKB dialogue and clunky exposition at least a few times. So what to do?

Fortunately for us, Brandon Crilly – author of short fiction published by Daily Science Fiction, Solarpunk Press, PULP Literature, and others, and a prolific sff reviewer for Black Gate magazine – recognizes the problem:

“I think one of the biggest risks with dialogue in SFF is using it too much to explain your world. Since there’s so much going on in, say, second-world fantasy, we need to find varied and interesting ways to make sure the reader understands the world they’re diving into. But doing so in dialogue makes it sound stilted and unnatural (the ‘as you know, Bob’ sort of mistake). And it can be subtle, too. Maybe two characters are walking through a pasture, hunting a demon, and start reminiscing about a time when they went cow-tipping at the academy in Verstok – and talk about what happened in direct, factual detail, as though they’re describing it to someone who doesn’t know the story (like the reader). That’s just as much of an issue, and an easy trap to fall into.”

Look carefully at the end of Brandon’s comment, because the answer to “but how do I fix this?” lies in the anecdote itself. If characters in a text start talking to each other “as though they’re describing it to someone who doesn’t know the story,” then the dialogue isn’t natural anymore. It’s too obviously in service of the reader. That’s your litmus test.

When I write, fixing that requires putting one fact front and center in my mind:

Readers are smarter than writers think. On the balance, the sort of person who reads sff reads with an understanding that the writing won’t all be on the wall and that some amount of trusting the world to reveal itself is needed. They might not know Delany’s term “abeyance,” but they’ve seen it in action and responded to it, drawing reasonable conclusions and filling in the world-space around the details they do have. This is a job a writer can make easier for their reader by knowing what they are trying to abey in any given dialogue.

Let’s take Brandon’s suggested dialogue between two demon-hunting pals reminiscing about cow-tipping and de-“As You Know, Bob” the scenario. First, we have to identify why the conversation is in the narrative at all. Likely contenders are to establish characters and their rapport, to contextualize the academy at Verstok (presumptive location of said cow-tipping), and to connect that bit of personal history to how these people turned into demon hunters. The conversation might do all of these things, to varying degrees, but it’s likely to focus mostly on just one purpose. If it’s building up our knowledge of how well these two work together and which one is the “responsible” one and which one is the troublemaker, then we don’t need to know the name of the groundskeeper who caught them, whether the cows were brown or black, or if the cow pasture was actually owned by an ornery local noble who contributes large funds to the Academy and used his influence to get the characters punished. It might be good to know if they were drunk, or if one of them slipped in cow dung just before jumping the fence to escape the angry, awakened cow—especially if these two clowns are going to have a rough time of it as demon-hunters, too. Indeed, the less that’s said between them about the event—the more they’re mortified by how much one of them stepping in demon scat reminds them of everything they’ve screwed up in the past, and the more that suggests to us they might just bungle things again—the better it is for a reader hungry to do their own mental storyboard.

And that may be the most important thing about writing strong dialogue in sff: using it as an invitation to imagine the rest of the story and its world. For some readers, it’s the heart of genre lit itself.