Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Say What?

Dialogue.

It sounds easy right. You get two or more characters together and you start them talking. Ah, but did you know there are rules to writing dialogue?

Of course there are!

But, don't worry, I'll try to make them easy to understand and follow. So, let's get started. We all know that dialogue is plain and simple just easier and faster to read than narrative. It keeps the reader interested and moves the story along.

That's your first rule. Dialogue has to move the story along. As Dwight V. Swain says in The Things They Say article, "...ever and always dialogue must advance the plot. How do you make dialogue do this advancing? By having it give the reader information needed to understand what's happening."

I highly recommend a book titled Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue by Gloria Kempton. I believe this book is the ultimate "go to" for your dialogue needs. Ms Kempton writes, "Dialogue not only creates space on the page, which is visually appealing, but it's also what brings characters to life in a story, which is emotionally appealing. We're much more interested in a story's setting when it comes through a scene of dialogue."

Yes! I totally agree. I don't know how many times I've said to my writers, use dialogue to set your scene. For example:

"The water is so warm!" Maureen said as she stepped slowly into the gentle waves.
"What did you expect when we came to Florida, you silly old girl?" Kay laughed at her friend.
"I wasn't sure, I mean, living next to Lake Michigan all my life, didn't even prepare me for this. But, " she paused as she bent down to pick up a pink seashell. "After Harold died and left me all that money, I knew I wanted something different."
"This is different." said Kay with a wry smile.
Maureen lifted her face to the bright sun. "It's so wonderful here." She shaded her eyes. "I just wish those darn seagulls would go find someone else to bug!" She laughed as a bold seagull dived hoping to snap up a tasty treat.

Do you see how we learn from this simplistic example that the scene is set in Florida at the seashore, and we learn even more, the characters are from somewhere in Michigan and they're probably older. All done without using narrative.

Just as important, while you're moving your story along with your dialogue, don't wander. And, no chit-chat for the sake of adding dialogue.

According to Ms Kempton, there are seven functions of dialogue.

Characterizes/Reveals Motives
According to Ms Kempton, "The most effective way to reveal your characters' motives is through their own mouths." In that same vein, the best way for you, the writer, to introduce a character to a reader is to use dialogue. You can use the same things you use in real life when you're interacting with other people: facial expressions and body language.

Remember, as Dwight V. Swain reminds us, "There are things a writer must think about, be aware of. If the words he puts in his story people's mouths are out of character, he'll be hard put to rise above them. Those words should reflect such factors as sex, age, occupation, status and background."

Sets the Mood in the Story
As the writer, you're in charge of setting and controlling the mood in your story. When characters interact, they exchange feelings and emotions. You should also be educing an emotion from the reader as well in order to hold their attention; to keep the reader turning that page.

Intensifies the Story Conflict
According to Ms Kempton, "Every scene of dialogue, in some way, needs to move the story conflict forward." That's a tall order, right? Just keep reminding the reader by using dialogue to show how critical it is for your character to achieve his/her goal.

Dwight V. Swain tells us this, "By the words your people say and the manner in which they say them, dialogue should characterize and individualize them, give information to advance the plot, reveal and build the emotion that galvanizes the story."

Creates Tension and Suspense
Ms Kempton says it better than anyone else, "Effective dialogue always, always delivers tension."

Tension and suspense must the at the core of nearly every scene. You might characterize these scenes with shorter words or shorter sentences to create more tension.

Speeds up your Scenes
That all elusive plot point - pacing. Yes, you can control pacing with dialogue. Used correctly, dialogue can move the story along quickly. Narrative, on the other hand, will slow the story down.

Adds Bits of Setting/Background
Go back and re-read my example above and see how I added bits of setting and background through dialogue. Most writers want to use narrative to set the scene before starting into the dialogue. That's not necessary.

Ms Kempton states, "Setting and background can actually be made interesting when incorporated into a dialogue scene. The reader experiences the setting through the viewpoint character's observations, and depending on the character, this could prove very interesting indeed. As long as there's tension, of course."

Communicates the Theme
In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King writes, "When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you're done, you have to step back and look at the forest...it seems to me that every book--at least every one worth reading --is about something."

Stephen King is right. That something is theme. You have to know what your story is about and what you want it to convey to your reader.

Conflict + Resolution = Theme

This is what Gloria Kempton says about dialogue and theme, "Dialogue is not only a faster and more effective way to communicate the theme than to use long paragraphs of dry exposition, but it's also more emotional, up-front, and personal with the reader."


Dialogue is one of the most important tools the writer has you should learn to use it properly. Loren D. Estleman in her article Five Ways to Strengthen Fiction With Dialogue, suggests five steps for developing an ear for dialogue.

Write Plays
She says that even if you never sell them, the practice of writing dialogue forces you to exercise speech usage.

Listen to People
Janet Evanovich in How I Write can answer this, "Pay attention to the spoken word. Play it back in your mind. ... Dialogue is everwhere if you just listen."

Read a lot of Dialogue
Read. Read. Read. You've heard it all before. Read lot's of dialogue, see how other authors are doing it.

Read your Dialogue Aloud
Read your dialogue into a tape recorder than play it back. Have someone else read it to you. Listen to it carefully. You'll be surprised at what you hear and how quickly the fixes come to your mind.

Relax
Don't try so hard to make it work. Dialogue must come naturally. You'll know it when you hear it.


Some other DO's and DON'Ts in Dialogue courtesy of Robert Newton Peck and Janet Evanovich
Do keep your sentences and phrases short. People rarely talk in monologues
Don't worry about overusing the word "said".
Do break up your dialogue with an interjection from another character or a thought or action if any dialogue runs longer than three sentences.
Don't add useless "ly" adverbs following each said.
Do use a telling detail to remind us who's speaking when the conversation goes on a long time.
Don't use so many exclamation marks!
Do make sure each character uses different grammar and figures of speech appropriate to who he is and where he comes from.
Don't underline every other word because you think it's important.
Do be sure to use a reasonable balance of dialogue and narrative

That's it. Dialogue in a "nutshell". Now get out there and show the writing world what you've learned!