Monday, March 31, 2008

Write Relevant Dialogue

Your story has just begun. The conflict is terrible, the plot superb, and the characters fascinating. It's time for the major scene, bringing together arch-nemesci in the same setting: the protagonist and antagonist. To pull off the ensuing confrontation, you'll need dialogue.

Dialogue is nothing more than words. But many of the conventionals of traditional prose are waived or modified for dialogue. If you write a story using third-person point of view, for example, the words of your characters may provide an entirely different tone from the rest of the text. For example:

The town's cathedral was an imposing monument of God and tradition. The mayors from time-before-memory had each held their inaugurations on the cathedral steps, quietly dodging questions from outside reporters about the separation of church and state. Even Holly Muhammed, the first Muslim female mayor-elect in the state, had asked the deacon's blessing for her administration. The announcement of her upcoming inauguration was posted inside the cathedral's brand-new bulletin board - a gift from Mayor Muhammed's husband.

Patrick ran his fingers over the bulletin board's rough-hewn lumber. Then he yanked back his fingers in pain. "Dag-nabbit! Another splinter."

"Dad," Sharla asked, "you want me to get the tweezers?"

"Lay off, will ya?" Patrick shot back. "Can't you see a grown man dyin'?"

Sharla looked confused. Her gaze went from the embossed invitation to all local residents before returning to her father's face. "You don't look like you're dying," she said.

Patrick jabbed his thumb against the invitation. "You see that? Do you see that? We're all dying, girl, every last one of us."

Sharla shook her head. She wondered if Mayor Muhammed would follow tradition and invite the local quartet to play a bit of Brahms for the celebration. Every mayor did it - it was tradition.

The key to good dialogue is twofold: it must convey relevant information while sounding true to natural speech. Dialogue that lacks sufficient information sounds too wordy - if it doesn't sound true-to-life, it sounds forced, as if the writer had to make the characters share information. In the example above, the dialogue conveys information on multiple levels. We see that Patrick has misgivings about the new mayor even though he never mentions her directly. The tone of his dialogue is brusque, a strong contrast to the smooth, reflective tone of the narrative. Note also the use of physical gesture and expression to heighten the emotional impact of his words - he jabs the invitation to shift the reader's attention, and then speaks. In this way, the dialogue avoids unnecessary reference to the mayor - the kind of reference that a regular person speaking would never actually say.

Another key here is that each character has his or her own way of speaking. Sharla, the POV character in this dialogue, speaks little, and her words lack the heightened emotions of her father. Instead, her words have the more measured tone of the narrative because the narrative is from her own point of view. Yet does she talk about the traditions of the town with her father? Nope. There’d be no point. It’s clear her father would argue with her, and it’s clear that she’s not the confrontational type.

There are two key ways to improve your mastery of dialogue. The first is to listen to people talking. Seek out people who are different from yourself and listen to the words they say. If you find someone who talks with the same mannerisms you use yourself, you won’t learn as much – we hear the novelty of human speech best when the words are unfamiliar. For myself, I learned the most about dialogue after I finished college and joined the Army. In the army, soldiers don’t always use no proper English, and we can’t be wasting no time with words, we gotta be out the door and in formation at oh-four-thirty.

As you can see, dialogue like this has a rhythm of its own, a rhythm that you can pick up and incorporate in your own work only by hearing it and learning to feel the meaning deep down. But in addition, you must bear in mind the second rule of human dialogue – all words are spoken with a purpose. When a character in your story speaks, he or she should be saying words to achieve a goal – and the tone and diction must match this goal. A new baby is born – the proud aunt will announce the news at the top of her lungs in the hospital waiting room. Why does she do this? Because she’s excited, because she wants to world to know she’s an aunt, because this is the happiest day in her life so far. Will she calmly take the stage beside the artificial plants and explain the baby’s birth weight? Heck no. She’ll belt it out at the top of her lungs from inside her sister’s maternity room as the doctors shove her out the door, and then she’ll turn pink at the sight of all the onlookers turning to face her. Her voice will drop to a squeak. “Um…sorry?”

Keep these points in mind as you write, but don’t slow your writing to adjust until it’s time for editing. After you’ve completed your first draft, read your work aloud. In real life, dialogue is a tool of the ear. You will hear missteps in dialogue far better than you can read them, especially in your own work. Listen for how natural the words sound. Listen for whether the characters are speaking to convince other characters. Most importantly, decide if you believe in the words you hear, if they sound “right.” If they don’t, remember the true beauty of writing – you can edit the words until they do.

This article is part of the FICTION 101 workshop sponsored by 1-2-Writing. Information regarding this free workshop and other courses may be viewed at


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Anonymous said...

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