“I regret to announce that – though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too short a time to spend among you – this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!” – Bilbo Baggins (The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien)
Well, the end of our discussion on dialogue, at least. In Part 1, we discussed the art of dialogue and in Part 2, the mechanics of dialogue. But before we slip on our magic rings and disappear from this post, I’d like to discuss ways to improve your dialogue.
Rest assured, crafting good dialogue requires no fellowship or wizardry, just a good ear and a dedication to improving your art. Here are some suggestions:
Read: Common sense, right? Read, read, read. Read a lot, and then read some more. Read good books and “bad” books (not passing judgment, but I’m sure you’ve read a book that you didn’t like or didn’t finish). Read as a writer. This means studying every line, every word, dissecting the page like a high school science class frog. Take notes, pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work.
Transcribe books and movies: Wear out your pause button on your DVD/Blu-ray player. Find a movie with the kind of dialogue that has you exchanging lines with your friends and then write it out. Write out entire scenes, paying attention to how the character’s voices are unique and define them, the pacing, and the dynamics of conversation. Find pages in that novel you can’t put down that are dialogue heavy and do the same thing. Copy it word for word. Then inject one of your characters into the scene and rewrite it, playing with your character’s response to existing dialogue.
Listen: For the most part (yes, I am generalizing here), people like to talk; talk to hear themselves think, talk to break silence, and talk to extoll their opinions. Allow yourself to maintain radio silence and just listen. Eavesdrop on conversations (without being creepy). Parks, coffee shops, and malls are great for this sort of thing. Which leads us to our next suggestion…
Beg, borrow, and steal: Being a writer means that you have a license to collect, like a magpie hoarding trinkets for later use. Write down juicy dialogue exchanges in your notebook. Record words that get your attention. Note how people say things to one another, focusing on tone, response, reaction, and language. This is not to use verbatim in your work in progress, but to help you construct believable and purposeful dialogue.
Interview your characters: I’m totally serious. Sit down with your character (figuratively, of course) and talk to them. Ask them questions about their life, their world, your world, current events, etc. Let the questions develop more questions. See what you can learn about them. You’ll be surprised that the characters begin to answer these questions, completely independent of your own intent and detached from your creative design. They come to life. They give voice to their own existence and something rather magical happens in the process: they become more than ideas on the page. They become alive and you can hear them, if you listen.
Read your work out loud: You might be surprised at how many people do not do this. By reading your work out loud, you’ll hear where beats are missing, or are out of sync. You’ll discover those bits of dialogue that looked great on the page, or appeared witty in your own mind, do not translate well. Dialogue is very much like music and you have to develop an ear for it. Reading out loud will allow you to do this. Read, refine, reread and revise.
Done well, dialogue can elevate your manuscript in the eyes of your potential agent or editor. But done poorly? That’s a good way to find your story’s chance of publication disappear quicker than Bilbo Baggins and his magic ring.
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.