Dialogue is one of the more powerful tools in the writer’s kit. Done well, we love it. We quote, text, Tweet, post, share and enjoy memorable snippets of what characters say. Done poorly and we cringe.
Dialogue can leap from the page, break the shackles of exposition, and bring your stories alive. It can breathe life into your characters and bring your readers to laughter or tears. So, why does it seem like such a mystery at times? Why do some people struggle with dialogue and how can we improve that?
In this three-part series, we will look at: what is being said (the art of dialogue); how it is being used (the mechanics of dialogue); and ways to improve your dialogue (the workshop).
PART I: THE ART OF DIALOGUE
There are several things to consider when employing dialogue. We’ll examine some of these below:
Character Voice/Construction: What our characters say can tell the reader a lot about who they are. As writers, we have to be conscious of how our characters respond. Their words give the reader insight into how a character thinks, what their priorities are, and an understanding of their personality. Dialogue cannot merely be an exchange of lines. The author should remove him or herself from the page and let the characters’ nature be revealed in their speech.
For example, if a ship is sinking and we hear a character begin to order bystanders to organize and load up the children, we understand that this is a quick thinking, take charge, noble kind of person. If the character next to him whispers to his manservant to retrieve the jewels from the room while he “listens to these sniveling brats and deplorable women panic,” we get a completely different idea.
Furthermore, dialogue gives you another tool to make each character unique. Vocabulary, delivery, and style are all things to consider depending upon each unique character. Does your proper gentleman never use contractions? Does your quirky artist lose his own train of thought and constantly – “Hey! Are you going to eat that last donut?”
Story Info/Moving Plot: It has been seared into our writer brains: “Show, don’t tell.” But sometimes you have to get some crucial information across to the reader and it is not something that can be shown. This can be done, in moderation, and dialogue is one way to do that. This is a delicate balance. I’m not suggesting an information dump from the mouth of your character (which we’ll discuss in Part II) but suggesting that you can write lines with enough info to allow your reader to fill in the gaps or understand enough through context.
For example, let’s pretend that our characters, Jimbo and Dugan, have had a past experience with the local underworld boss, Alfonse Gruber. It didn’t end well for Jimbo and we need the reader to have a sense of the history and danger:
Dugan lit a Newport and tossed the match. “Gruber? Alfonse Gruber?”
Jimbo looked like he was going to be sick. “Yeah.”
“You remember what happened last time?” said Dugan.
“I remember,” Jimbo said. He flexed his left hand and looked at where his fingers used to be. “I remember.”
Pacing/Tension: Stories are built at the micro level. Every sentence we construct, every word we choose, they all become part of this greater whole that transcends the sum of its parts. Part of that construction is in the white space and page design. Take a look at a story where dense chunks of exposition seize the page like a zombie virus outbreak and the only room to breathe is in the margin. That’s a slow, heavy read that can easily weigh upon your reader. Inversely, you can quicken pace and create tension with short, staccato bursts.
“Ready to do this?”
“That bastard owes me a few fingers. Let’s go!”
Quick, snappy, pulls the reader through the page.
Purpose: Just like every scene should have a purpose, conversations should have a purpose. Every line should have a purpose. It’s not enough to write dialogue just to have characters interact. There has. To be. A purpose. You must know why the characters are talking to one another, what they intend to get out of the conversation, and what you intend the reader to get out of the conversation.
In the example above, Jimbo and Dugan are gathering courage to make a move on Alfonse. Dugan wants to make sure Jimbo is with him and Jimbo obviously wants some payback. I want the reader to share the tension, to start building some adrenalin and anticipation for what’s about to unfold. Jimbo and Dugan are not just talking so that I can break from exposition or have them interact.
Emotions: Finally, what we have our characters say and the way they say it can illustrate the emotional state of our character. As writers, all we have are the words on the page. In movies, actors deliver the lines with visual and auditory clues. Dialogue gives us a way to paint an emotional picture in textual context.
“I’m … I’m ready to do this…I think,” said Jimbo. (nervous, uncertain)
“I’m ready to do this!” (Excited)
“Am I ready to do this?” Jimbo said. He looked out the soot-smeared window. “I was never ready to do this. Let’s get it over with.” (resignation)
While there are many other considerations for writing strong, effective dialogue, I hope these concepts will give you some things to examine and practice in your own work.
Please visit next Wednesday, when I’ll discuss THE MECHANICS OF DIALOGUE.
Thank you and happy writing!
Joe McGee is a children’s book author from southern New Jersey. He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master’s Writing Program and is currently pursuing his Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, the father of three young boys, and an amateur cartoonist. His fiction and poetry have won national recognition.