Dialogue is generally thought to be the hardest element of storytelling to master. I halfway agree.
Two components of dialogue make it so hard to write: perspective and voice. Perspective is easier than voice, because it mainly requires empathy and imagination. But voice demands an understanding of mannerisms, vocabulary patterns, and rhythm of speech.
And writing rhythmically is possibly one of the hardest writing skills to master. Not just for crafting dialogue. But for writing anything compelling.
In “children’s books,” there is especially very little patience for laggardly pacing. As kids, we want action or else! (Or else we’ll put down the book and make a ruckus in the library or bug our parents, and that book will never be recommended to another kid again…this is natural selection for books, really.)
Roald Dahl has shared several tips for writers, but none on technique. Aside from creating colorful characters, fantastic plots, and intriguing settings, Dahl has a particular ability to pace action.
Let’s look at a sample of how he does this. Today’s an especially good day to visit Danny the Champion of the World because evil Mr. Hazell’s great pheasant shoot happens every year on October 1st. Here’s a passage from when nine-year-old Danny has entered Mr. Hazell’s woods, in search of his dad:
“Are you there, dad? Are you there?” I shouted. “It’s Danny!”
I stood still—listening, listening, listening. In the silence that followed, I heard, or thought I heard, the faint, but of so faint, sound of a human voice.
I froze and kept listening.
Yes, there it was again.
I ran toward the sound. “Dad!” I shouted. “It’s Danny! Where are you?”
I stopped again and listened.
This time the answer came loud enough for me to hear the words. “I’m here!” the voice called out. “Over here!”
It was him!
I was so excited my legs began to get all shaky.
“Where are you, Danny?” my father called out.
“I’m here, dad! I’m coming.”
With the beam of the flashlight shining ahead of me, I ran toward the voice. The trees were bigger here and spaced farther apart. The ground was a carpet of brown leaves from last year and was good to run on. I didn’t call out any more after that. I simply dashed ahead.
And all at once, his voice was right in front of me. “Stop, Danny, stop!” he shouted.
I stopped dead. I shone the flashlight over the ground. I couldn’t see him.
“Where are you, dad?”
With short lines, short phrases, Dahl forces us both to pause and allows us to hurry forward. In each moment we are guided to follow Danny’s mental dialogue (“Yes, there it was again…It was him!), which, woven in with the actual dialogue between father and son, creates an immediacy between us and Danny. We dip into Danny’s head, and are not interrupted by extra narrative.
As Danny locates his dad, though, the pacing changes. We are shown a fairly romantic description of imagery—the beam of the flashlight, the spacing of the trees, the leaf litter—but this isn’t florid. The shift in focus and rhythm feels natural, because we are running alongside Danny—we’re headed towards his dad’s voice, and along the way, our our senses are heightened to notice the landscape. The paragraph ends with us dashing full tilt with this momentum…and running headlong into a new paragraph in which Danny’s dad calls out for Danny to stop. So, with Danny, we must.
And there, with Dahl’s three, short phrases—”I stopped dead. I shone the flashlight over the ground. I couldn’t see him.”—our eye and mind leap from topic to topic, not unlike how Danny is rapidly scanning the space for his dad in the dark.
Being swept away in a story isn’t simply about the plot—an awkwardly paced phrase will present a stumbling block particularly in intense scenes, when we delight in the tension of being ushered forward. Rhythm, then, is key. And rhythm is as much in the syllables of words as it is in the breaking of paragraphs, the splicing of phrases, and the movement of the action in a story.
Like good UX design for an app interface, rhythmically written writing is least noticeable when you’re in a hurry. And, perhaps, that’s when it’s most important.