A common mistake in writing dialogue is to include conversation that does nothing to move the story forward. Example:
“Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
“Okay thanks, and you?”
“Couldn’t be better. Looking forward to the weekend.”
“It’s been a long week.”
… and on and on.
A short meaningless phrase may be okay to get the action going, but your second character better have something meaningful to say pretty soon or the reader will disengage. That answer to “How are you?” needs to have a punch or just ignore the question. Or tell us why the week seemed so long and don’t delay about it.
Here’s a short example from “Winter is Past.” Mundane conversation, but it carries the story another step forward.
Kathryn sat on the edge of the bed and sipped apple juice from a cardboard container. The curtains were drawn, blocking the light. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Just after one. You okay?”
“I’ve got to be. I plan to go to work tomorrow. There’s only a few days to get things squared away. Brian scheduled the surgery for next Monday.”
Review one of your own short stories and try to identify snippets of conversation that go nowhere. Eliminate them entirely or add something that gives the reader a reason to be involved…something that moves the plot along, expresses emotion or mood, establishes a sense of place. Anything that gives it a raison d’etre.
To continue last week’s discussion on effective dialogue, I’d like to focus on creating “natural” dialogue.
In my early attempts at dialogue, the voices of my english teachers strummed in the back of my consciousness: “Speak in complete sentences,” “No dangling participles,” “Slang is not acceptable.” I’m sure you can add to the list.
The ability to speak and write in a way that shows command of grammatical rules is essential in our day-to-day functioning as adults and I would never disparage it. I confess to cringing when I hear educated, professional people murder our language. However, in day-to-day conversation, it is rare hear perfect usage. My husband and I speak in fragments, finishing each other’s sentences at times. As a nurse I communicated using acronyms. Text messages have a language all their own. The examples of altered speech patterns are numerous.
Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at a Starbucks with a friend, catching up on the few months that had passed since we’d had quality time together. I’m sure if there was a writer sitting nearby, listening in on our conversation, she would have had ample opportunity to get a sense of the natural flow of dialogue. This is an “artist’s date” you should keep with yourself from time-to-time.
Tonight I’m going to a concert sponsored by a local smooth jazz radio station. My husband won the tickets. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the evening out but I plan on listening to more than the music. My pen and small notebook that I carry in my purse will be there in case I catch snippets of conversation worth remembering.
As an aside, the concept of artist’s date is explained in Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” If you haven’t spent time with that book, do yourself a favor. It’s a classic.
I have to guess that there are entire blogs devoted to the creation of effective dialogue and I’m sure that this will be the first of a series of posts that I write on this subject.
Think about what dialogue can do to make or break a piece of fiction. Through dialogue the reader can get into the mind of the protagonist but also can come to a greater understanding of other-than-point-of-view characters. Dialogue is an effective tool in pacing your narrative. Consider the difference between short, clipped sentences and those that are pondering, reflective. Dialogue enables the reader to understand a character’s motivation and emotional responses to persons and events. The writer can use dialogue to set the mood and the setting of the story.
Today I want to consider only one factor that contributes to effective dialogue: the importance of remaining true to the personality of your characters. The manner in which a character expresses his thoughts and feelings must be consistent with his temperament, background, education and occupation. Take a sample of dialogue from a novel or short story that you have written and use these criteria to evaluate the believability of your character. Then rewrite the scene from the point of view of a character who is:
- A white woman raised in a wealthy family who completed law school but never went on to practice because of her shyness;
- A black police detective who escaped the ghetto of his childhood in his altuistice desire to help his community rise above the culture of crime;
- A neurotic 60-year-old divorcee who has no family or close friends;
- An immigrant from Mexico who has worked hard to achieve success in spite of a lack of education;
- An artist living in New York who’s creativity is fueled by alcohol.
If you prefer, use this scenario: The character learns from a sibling that his/her estranged father has died. If you want, use comments to post all or one of your characters and I will select some to add to this blog. More on dialogue next week.
Happy writing. Enjoy the process.
Fiction becomes more effective if dialogue is believeable. Here are a few suggestions that I’ve found helpful in writing and editing dialogue:
- Listen: pay attention to conversation in everyday life. When you are in public, for example, in a restaurant, snoop on other people. Notice how we speak in incomplete sentences, interrupt, use slang or cliche. Most conversations are not erudite or professorial.
- Distinguish voices by developing character profiles before writing dialogue then adapt the voice of each character to the “whole person.” For example, in my second novel, “The Sin of His Father,” the speech patterns of the police detective are quite different from those of the priest.
- Avoid preaching. If you want to make a point, don’t go at it directly. Keep in mind the American Indian tradition of storytelling–that is, using the story to teach a lesson.
- Don’t write long “dialogue-only” paragraphs. Break it up with snippets of action or description.
- Make sure that dialogue serves a purpose in moving the story forward. Skip or abbreviate the Hello, how are you. I’m fine. kind of stuff.
- Help the reader to identify the speaker by using an occasional he said, she said. But don’t use contrived verbs such as he pontificated.
- In one of my posts on editing, I suggested reading your work out loud. This is a good technique in reviewing dialogue. If you can find someone to read with you, so much the better.