Dialogue can be one of the most powerful tools at a writer’s disposal. Far too often though, I feel its potential is overlooked, and it’s used very superficially, as if the writer were thinking Here’s an easy way to add to my word count. When this happens, we get dialogue like:
“How are you doing?”
“Fine. How about you?”
Although this type of dialogue may sound authentic, it really doesn’t add much to a scene. One of my general writing “rules” is that every word must earn the right to be in the manuscript. Easy writing, like the dialogue above, wouldn’t survive. When I self-edit, I have another rule: when in doubt, throw it out.
But enough of my rules. Let’s look at dialogue. To get us started, it’s probably wise to go over a few terms. Diction is the level of vocabulary used by a speaker. High diction typically consists of polysyllabic, Latinate words that tend to sound intellectual, stuffy or pompous, depending on how you use them. Low diction typically consists of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words that are generally perceived as less intellectual, but more sensual and passionate. Here are two examples:
“Perish, you repugnant curmudgeon!”
The inappropriate use of diction is often the basis of comedy. An example would be when a haughty English professor attempts to use street dialect and totally misspeaks.
In real life, we often change our level of diction based on the situation we’re in (who our audience is). Having a character change his level of diction based on the situation can be used to reveal a lot about him. Is he being manipulative? Why? What’s he really after?
Tone is the attitude behind the dialogue. Is the speaker being sincere, snide, cynical when she speaks? “Yeah, he’s a real champ” can mean many different things, based on the tone of its delivery. The writer has to establish the tone/attitude of the character in previous scenes or in the course of the current conversation in order to make sure the reader is aware of it.
When writing dialogue, we want it to sound as natural as possible. So much of what I read seems to get bogged down in perfect grammar. In real life, we rarely utilize perfect grammar when we speak. As we get more excited, grammar gets chucked and we speak in sentence fragments. If we’re talking to a spouse or close friend, we often slip into a verbal shorthand or code, with the other person frequently completing our sentences. Having characters do this can reveal their level of intimacy. I’m not suggesting grammar be abandoned, but it should be used in a way that makes your characters sound real. It’s important to remember that language is always evolving, and that current usage is far more important than any rules.
Here are some techniques/examples that can help you get more out of your dialogue:
Text vs. Sub-Text: The issue here is what the character is saying as opposed to what the character really wants. If the reader is aware of the character’s motives, then you can use dialogue to reveal what a scumbag (or saint) the character truly is. A variation of this is using a verb that changes the entire meaning of dialogue:
“I’m really looking forward to spending the week with your parents,” he yawned.
Another variation is using dialogue to reinforce the opposite of what’s going on in the scene. For example, a young girl who’s been revealed as vulnerable, scared and alone might say, “I don’t need your help. I’m not a child.” When she says this, an empathetic reader is drawn in and thinks Of course you need my help.
Actions as Dialogue: Writers often forget that actions are a significant part of conversation. What is unsaid can be as powerful as what is said. Check out the power of the unsaid in this exchange:
“You still love me, don’t you?” John asked.
Megan walked to the window, watched the trash men hoist dented barrels into their truck.
The invisible said. In long sequences of dialogue, the word said becomes invisible. Its purpose is merely to keep the reader aware of who is speaking. Whenever possible, I drop said altogether. This speeds up the scene. On the other hand, replacing said with a far more descriptive verb can add a lot to a scene in a minimum amount of space: “I hate you,” she screamed. The danger with this is that writers often work so hard to not use said they draw attention to that very fact. Readers can sense when an author has gone through a manuscript and replaced every said with another word from their thesaurus.
Dialect: One of the current “rules” is that dialect should be avoided. My advice is if you need and it works, use it. In Mia’s Gift, Clark stutters, which I consider a type of dialect. What I did is establish his stuttering, then just had him stutter occasionally to remind the reader. Dialect can be used to differentiate between speakers rather than using “said Ashley” or whatever.
Exposition Overload: A common area of weakness in dialogue is when the writer crams all their research on a topic into a single paragraph or exchange. There are at least two problems here: first, in real life we usually don’t speak in long paragraphs (unless we’re lecturing). Information is revealed in bits and pieces. Second, you can’t hide boring in quotes. Even though the information may be accurate, it’s usually more effective to show at least part of it rather than tell it, especially when the info isn’t particularly exciting. For example, you might show a builder installing a window and answering questions from an inquisitive homeowner rather than have the builder give a how-to speech.
I hope some of what I’ve said helps your dialogue.
The blurb: Craig Weeden is the co-author (with his wife, Vicky) of the award-winning middle-grade novel Mia’s Gift: A Muzzles the Manatee Story. Craig’s listed in the Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers and at Poets & Writers. He’s currently polishing a couple of screenplays. MuzzlesTheManatee.com