Dialogue – Putting Words in Your Characters’ Mouths
By Jeanne C. Stein
Last month we looked at plotting and defining our inciting incident. In this lesson we’ll touch on one of the most important building blocks in writing: Dialogue.
There are lots of authors who excel at dialogue, but none better than mystery writer, the late Robert B. Parker.
The first thing you notice when you open one of his books is the white space.
White space? What’s that?
It’s all that space on the right margin of a page when the four deadly sins of dialogue are excised. What are they?
2. Unnecessary attributes.
3. Unnecessary adverbs.
White space occurs when characters speak realistically.
Parker is so adept at realistic dialogue, that he practically tells his entire story in dialogue. I suggest if you aren’t familiar with Parker, you pick up one of his books and see what I mean.
If we start with the basics, dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters. It should be relevant, advance the plot and reveal something about the character speaking—his emotion or state of mind. Those things are obvious to most of us. What isn’t so obvious is how we actually translate it to the page.
Let’s look at some examples of dialogue that illustrate the four deadly sins I mentioned above.
1. Info-dumps. This is also called “As you know, Bob…” You have two characters meeting for the first time in your book. They have a history. Their meeting involves something that has already taken place, something the reader may or may not know. The conversation goes like this.
“Jack, did you hear what happened to our good friend, Jim?”
“You mean the terrible attack that landed him in the hospital with two broken legs and three cracked ribs that occurred just last week when he was caught by rogue demons on his way home?”
Have you ever heard anyone talk like that? Of course not. But it’s seen a lot in unpublished manuscripts and sadly, in some books.
How do you fix it?
“Hey, Jack. Did you hear about Jim?”
“Couldn’t believe it. Cracked ribs and two broken legs. Those demons are out of control.”
2. Unnecessary attributes. May not even need to give you an example, but just in case:
“Hey, Jack,” Mary said.
“Hey, Mary,” Jack replied.
“Where are you going?” Mary inquired.
“To see Jim. As you know, he was attacked by demons last week,” Jack answered. “I’m bringing him a protection charm.”
“Can I go, too?” Mary asked.
“Sure.” Jack replied. “He’ll enjoy the company.”
If you have two characters on stage, we need only the first tags (and sometimes not even that) to follow the dialogue.
3. Unnecessary adverbs. Again, may be obvious. I’ll use the same example as above.
“Hey, Jack,” Mary chirped excitedly.
“Hey, Mary,” Jack replied happily.
“Where are you going?” Mary inquired quizzically.
“To see Jim. As you know, he was attacked by demons last week,” Jack answered soberly. “I’m bringing him a protection charm.”
“Can I go, too?” Mary asked hopefully.
“Sure,” Jack replied, nodding enthusiastically. “He’ll enjoy the company.”
Dialogue itself should reveal the character’s emotions without need of adverbial helpers. In fact, as a general rule, omit adverbs from ALL your prose. If you’re doing your job, you don’t need them.
People use clichés because clichés are descriptive shortcuts, which is one way to say, they are phrases whose meanings we recognize immediately. They convey universal understanding. Not necessarily a bad thing it itself.
Every cliché was once fresh and witty. Over time, though, some have become stale and will mark you as a lazy writer, especially if overused. When you find yourself writing, quick as a bunny, try to rewrite it. Find a fresh and different way to say the same thing.
A rule of thumb for clichés is that if you think you’ve read it before, try rewriting it.
Bestselling romance author Sharon Mignerey gave us the following acronym for elements of good dialogue: SCRAPE.
Dialogue should reflect:
S - Setting and Subtext
C - Character Consistency
Dialogue should be:
R -Revealing and Relevant
A - Atmospheric and Appropriate
Well done dialogue:
P - Propels Plot
E - Evokes Emotion
-© 1999 Sharon Mignerey (used with permission)
One other aspect of dialogue that can be troublesome is conveying dialect. If you have a character with a distinct pattern of speech or an accent, it’s tricky to carry that off through an entire book. Better to give us a sample when we first meet the character, remind us of it as the story progresses, but write most passages without reverting to the dialect. A hint of the character’s Scottish brogue or Irish lilt or that he has a speech impediment is all that’s needed to remind the reader.
All this is basic, certainly. But good dialogue reflects character and moves our plot forward so much better than long passages of narration. It’s fluid. It reveals our character’s mind set and conveys emotion. It keeps the reader engaged.
Another author who has mastered story telling through dialogue is Jackie Kessler. Her protagonist is Jesse Harris, a succubus-turned-human. Here’s a brief example of dialogue from her second “Hell on Earth” book, The Road to Hell:
“Oh,” Daun said. “Never mind. I get it.”
I turned back to face Daun, who was straddled over my hips, watching me. “Get what?”
“No? You’re crying.”
I was? Shit. Dabbing at my leaking eyes, I said, “Sorry, I’m okay now.”
“I am. Really. Have at it…”
Lots of white space. No unnecessary tags. Conveys emotion. Reads smoothly, especially aloud.
# # # #
So, in summary, to make dialogue sparkle:
Keep colloquialisms and slang to a minimum.
Use a natural cadence and manner.
Be fresh with your dialogue, rewrite clichés.
Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural.
Next up: Conflict. What is it? Why is it important?