Being a purebred Southern girl, talking has never been a difficulty– however writing about ‘talking’ can be tricky. Writer’s Digest has some great books on dialogue, namely Dialogue by Lewis Turco and Dialogue – Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue by Gloria Kempton. The latter book is helpful in giving various exercises at the end of each chapter to support the info one just finished reading.
Dialogue serves several different purposes:
2. Moves the story along
3. Creates Tension
4. Sets a mood
If you’ve ever read any of her writing, you’ll discover that dialogue
was as much a part of the character as his/her thoughts. Jane wasn’t
prone to describing physical features of her characters, except maybe
some ‘fine eyes’ here and ‘handsome features’ there, but she took the
meat of the character and allowed the reader to figure him/her out.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is known for rattling
on about various things, basically just to hear himself talk. The reader
quickly realizes Mr. Collins is a pompous, self-important man…just from
his letter. Wow!
On the other hand, Darcy and Elizabeth give short, witty replies – and
we end of liking them. It reveals characteristics of the one speaking
and the ones responding to it. Within the first few pages of Pride and
Prejudice, readers have a ‘handle’ on about six different characters
mainly through…dialogue. Dialogue moves the story along, especially if
you feel your getting ‘saggy’ in the middle. It should ALWAYS add to the
story, never ending up as a bunch of empty words, and it also can cover
lots of information in a short amount of time.
Obviously, dialogue can create tension.
“How dare you, John Brady? I have no choice! My heart is breaking
because of you, and if it takes Tom Weston to get over you, then so be
He jumped up. “Beth, forgive me, please, and don’t cry. We can pray about this-“
Disbelief paralyzed her for a painful second.
“No! You leave me be. I don’t want any more of your prayers-“
His hand gripped her. “Beth, please, sit with me? Can’t we just talk and work this out?”
Whew…and I didn’t even add any of Julie Lessman’s ‘oh-so-famous’ lip action
This is only a short example, but poignant – it shows the speed dialogue
adds to a manuscript. Here’s Meant to Be Mine by Becky Wade:
"I know its a shock to hear from me. I'm sorry about that. I could call back later."
"No." Goodness, she didn't want that.
"All right, he answered. "So. Lunch?"
"No. I have nothing to say to you."
"Maybe not, but I have several things I'd like to say to you."
"Look..." She pressed her teeth into her bottom lip. "If you've come because you want a divorce, you should have saved yourself the trip."
Whoa MAMA! Makes you want to read more, right? We don't even need to characters names in that scene to know there's some trouble brewing :-)
Dialogue can be set up to create fear in thrillers, sizzle in romances,
and build subtle (or overt) comedy! It also tells you so much about the characters without info dumping.
Below is an example of how dialogue can set a mood.
Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo (Although Mr. Darcy Ruined My Life is my favorite in this series)
(Emma is the POV character and her former best friend in the scene is Adam)
"I'm sorry," I said, my words muffled by the pillow.
"It's okay. It'll be okay." Adam rubbed his hand between by shoulder blades. I turned my head so that I could see him.
"I'm lying on a borrowed sofa, with no money to speak of, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I've just seen my former best friend in a towel. How in the world is that going to turn out okay?"
He really did have the nicest smile. His eyes lit with laughter.
"Well, number one, at least you have a sofa to collapse on, like a heroine out of some romance novel."
"True." I sniffed.
"Two, I'm something of an expert at living in London on the cheap. I'll show you the ropes. How does that sound?"
"Okay, I guess." I waited for him to address my third complaint. Now, though, he was the one suddenly looking uncomfortable.
"Maybe we could forget about the third thing."
If a few sentences can set moods, just imagine what an entire scene of dialogue can do.
Talk isn’t cheap, btw. It takes time to craft good dialogue, but it’s worth it. Just remember to ask these questions.
1. What does this say about my characters without ‘saying’ it outloud?
2. Does this dialogue move my story along or is it just a filler phrase?
3. Is there some sort of energy in the dialogue, whether good or bad, to keep me interested in what the characters are saying?
4. Does this dialogue set the sort of mood I want to present?
There are many more tips to writing dialogue, but these are a few to help build a memorable scene.
What do you enjoy about good dialogue? What does it communicate to you?