Ciao, SEers. We’re at part four of this series: dialogue. I’ve written two posts on the subject (101 and 201), and there are several others by my colleagues. Harmony has a series of tips, and John discusses tags and beats. Today, my goal is to show how to use dialogue to reveal your story.
The best way to write realistic dialogue for your characters is to study how people talk in real life. Study it; don’t duplicate it. The astute student will notice right away that real conversations are boring and riddled with fillers. You want your dialogue to sparkle. Eliminate the ums and ahs (unless the character is supposed to be hesitating and stammering, which shouldn’t happen often), Also, get rid of those dull five-minute greetings where people discuss traffic and weather. Cut straight to the chase. You might find you don’t even need a “hello” in many situations. The more you can distill and sharpen your conversations, the better. Take what you learn from people-listening, then improve upon it. Cut as much as you can so what you’re left with is gold.
Word choice is a powerful way to reveal character. And remember what we learned last time: the story is being told through the lens of your POV character. You need to get into his head. If he’s a chef, his metaphors will be cooking-related. That’s what he knows best. If he’s a mechanic, his analogies will be based on cars and engines. You’ll want to use appropriate jargon, but not so much that a reader unfamiliar with his forte struggles to understand. The military and first responders are notorious for speaking in shorthand and acronyms. Many readers won’t know this vernacular. You need to find a balance. Too much lingo will push your reader away. Not enough and the dialogue won’t ring true. A good technique is to have your character use specific terminology to a layperson. When that character expresses confusion, he has the opportunity to explain things in simpler terms, which helps the reader without feeling forced. (Just make sure you avoid the “as you know, Bob” mistake. If Bob already knows, the characters shouldn’t talk about it.) Otherwise, you have to walk the line between immersing yourself in the character’s language and spelling things out more.
Sometimes, it’s not what the character says that reveals information. It’s what he chooses not to say. It’s an expression, or his refusal to show any reaction at all. It’s the internal monologue going a mile a minute while he stays silent. Make use of all devices at your disposal to reveal reactions and emotions.
As for the mechanics of it, use tags and beats sparingly. Let the dialogue flow with as little interruption as possible. But don’t go overboard and not use them enough. If there’s confusion as to who is speaking, you need an attribution. Conversations between one Italian man and one American woman will need a lot fewer attributions than conversations between three or more people of the same gender and region. Foreign phrases and regional colloquialisms can take the place of an attribution, but they should be used sparingly so as not to tire a reader.
Whatever your characters say, make sure the dialogue advances the plot, reveals character, or (even better) does both. Every scene benefits from physical and emotional stakes. You get to decide how much of them to address. Dialogue is an excellent way to do that.
When you’re done, read the conversation aloud. Nothing will reveal dialogue that doesn’t ring true faster than hearing it spoken.
- Study, but don’t copy, real world conversations.
- Distill the conversation to the strongest and sharpest words possible.
- Tell the story through the POV character’s voice, not yours.
- Find a balance between lingo and simpler exposition.
- Sometimes it’s knowing what not to say. Non-verbal responses can be a powerful tool.
- Use only enough attributions to eliminate confusion. Let the dialogue speak for itself when it can.
- Let your dialogue advance the plot and/or the character arc. If it’s not doing either, it’s not doing its job.
- Read dialogue aloud to “hear” if it sounds organic.
Next time, we’ll discuss plot in more detail. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you use dialogue in your work. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!
Links to the Whole Series:
January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series
Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.