I have a friend who wrote me that he was working on a novel which was all dialogue. My response was: Isn’t that called a play?
Have you ever read a book and then gone to the movie made from the book and said, “The book was better.”? The reason is: books can do something movies cannot. A book can put the reader inside the heads of the characters. Movies excel at description. A picture is truly worth a thousand words, but to give depth and feeling to the character the reader has to get inside the character’s head. Occasionally a director will try to overcome that shortcoming by adding narration, but in order to do it to the extent it can easily be done in a novel; the movie would be so long you would have to bring a lunch and a sleeping bag to watch it. It would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy on steroids.
A movie can start with a scene of a soldier obviously in pain limping badly down a road. All we know is, he is hurt. It is when we know what is going on in his head when the story begins. Is he thinking: “I’ve taken two bullets in my legs and a bazooka round in my guts. I can live with one kidney, half a liver and a little piece of a spleen…I hope. I have to get back to my men and let them know: Soylent Green is people! Or he might be thinking: “This is the worst my hemorrhoids have ever been. I hope with a tube of Preparation H and a six-pack of beer I can still compete in the dwarf tossing contest at the officer’s club tonight.” What he’s thinking makes a difference. (If you got the Soylent Green reference raise your hand.”
I have always been a big proponent of letting dialogue stand by itself whenever possible. Speaker attributions and action should only be added to mimic the natural speech rhythm of pauses and breaks that occur in normal conversation. However; very often people do not say what they are thinking. Let’s take the age-old loaded question, “Does this dress make my butt look big?” Unless your life has become so horrible you yearn for a slow, painful death you will say, “No. You look great.” What you want to say is, “No, the dress has nothing to do with it.”
When your boss says, “I hope you don’t mind working this weekend while I fly to California for the company golf tournament?” You say, “Of course not. Anything for the company.” What you are thinking is, You think I don’t have a life you fat slob? At least while you’re gone I can finish transferring the company’s assets to my Swiss bank account. Maybe I’ll stop by and see your wife again and find out if you picked up more pretzels and gin. Which one is more interesting? What he says or what he thinks?
There is supposed to be a hard and fast rule of only getting inside one character’s head per scene. I know there are many very good and famous writers who have violated it, but if your name is McMurtry or Tolstoy, what are you doing reading this blog? I believe in writing from one point of view per scene. It is limiting. In the novel I am currently working on, I have rewritten a chapter three times from three different points of view. As I wrote, I realized there were things I wanted to disclose that the character whose eyes I was looking through could not possibly know. The second character I tried it with, I realized would have to be thinking things I did not want the reader to know. I think I finally got it right with the third character.
The editor of my first novel, In The Sticks, was very good at picking out little slips in point of view. Some I actually did not think were actual slips. I thought they could have been who was thinking it. Originally the last chapter of the novel started in omniscient point of view and went into third person point of view. It is a rather common technique, but my editor insisted I change it to all third-person. I still think it read better the way I wrote it originally, but that’s my point of view.