NaNoWriMo started today! Hu-rarrgh! So let’s get down to business, because I know for a fact you’re just taking a break from smashing today’s word goal, and research counts, right?
Today we’ll be looking at dialogue and how dialogue not only gives your characters depth and well, character, but also helps you advance the plot of your story.
I’m going to split this episode into two sections; literal advice on dialogue and then characterisation, which is a deeper and heavier topic which I will touch on. I won’t cover grammar here because that is a lesson all of its own, but I’ll include some links for you to look at.
Dialogue is the verbal interaction between two or more characters which your reader is privy to. If the character is talking alone, we call it a monologue. Both of these are useful as writing techniques and I’ll cover a few interesting ideas soon. First, I want to show you an example of how dialogue can work:
“What are we watching tonight?” asked Jude.
Sarah shuffled the DVDs on the shelf to get a better look. “Star Wars, tonight?”
“We could watch Indiana Jones if you’d like?” she said.
“Nah, Star Wars. With popcorn.”
This is pretty basic dialogue, it’s OK but it doesn’t really make for good reading and frankly, its dull. I’ll rewrite this section and you can see for yourself how a little conflict can really give it more energy and readability.
“What are watching tonight?” asked Jude.
Sarah shuffled the DVDs on the shelf to get a better look. “Star Wars, tonight?”
“That shit, again?”
“We haven’t watched any Star Wars since Sunday night,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. And the Sunday before that and the one before that! Don’t you ever try something new, Sarah?”
This rewrite has conflict, unlike the original draft. It’s pretty mundane stuff but actually gives a little bit of purpose to the dialogue – we learn more about the characters in the same amount of text without really having to change much. Dialogue is plot, plot is confrontation, confrontation is dramatic and therefore entertaining to read. If your dialogue does not advance the plot or aids in creating your character, remove it. It isn’t helping.
So, onto the juicy stuff.
Part One – Literary Tactics on Dialogue
The primary rule here is that fictional dialogue of any sort is not directly transposed from real-life dialogue. It doesn’t work, because when we talk naturally we interrupt ourselves with filler noises while we think or sigh and make gestures with our bodies. With this in mind, keep your dialogue concise, meaning you should cut it right back to the essentials only. If there is no character advancement or plot work going on, get rid of it as it doesn’t make for good reading.
While we’re at it – we don’t always use social niceties when we talk. I am forever just shouting a colleagues name, sometimes getting it wrong on purpose. It’s also not organic to greet someone formally every time they come into the room to talk. This leads nicely into using incomplete or cut back sentences. Rather than ask:
“Do you want to drink some beer with me?”
We would simply say:
“Want a beer?”
It is implied that by asking about the possession of beer, you’re likely to share it.
Tags and Vacuum Speech
Tags are really simple devices to break up the dialogue. In real life we don’t just face each other and speak blandly forwards, often we are pausing or watching the other person for reactions. Stephen King makes it very clear that simply using the word said is more than enough of a tag to help the reader keep up with the dialogue. He said, she said, or using the character name sparingly is enough of a tag to help the conversation flow.
Be careful with tags though, as they can easily become overused and distract the reader with a speedy battle of paddle war. To get around this, using descriptive tags can alter the pace of your dialogue. Descriptive tags are little actions which we all do when we talk; preparing food, typing away at a computer desk or lighting a cigarette. These descriptions give a sense of life and purpose to the characters. Caution though, avoid adverbs (usually ending in the suffix ‘ly’) such as frighteningly. Rather, describe these actions and emotions with the characters reactions.
Another easy little device is to alter the length of lines in your dialogue. Shortening lines in a dialogue adds some punch into the conversation by allowing the reader to break or rest for a brief moment. Overextending the reader is usually a result of boring, lengthy lines of dialogue which feel faked.
If one character is talking with lengthy lines and the responses are single words or short and sharp lines, we may assume that the second character is being evasive or unhelpful.
Tension can also be built up as dialogue lines become shorter, suggesting the conversation is reaching a climax where neither character is prepared to talk further, possibly resulting in conflict.
Part 2 – Characterisation & Dialogue
Collins English Dictionary describes characterisation as:
“Characterization is the way an author or an actor describes or shows what a character is like.”
The key words here are describes and shows. As with any writing devices, it is always preferred to show the reader rather than tell them (especially when it comes to exposition). For this reason you must consider your character in detail and then use their dialogue or monologue to effectively portray who they are. This is tricky, but with some background notes you should be able to overcome dry dialogue. The following are not in any particular order of importance.
Emotional conventions are habits learned from background and upbringing. They will add life and realism to your characters with proper use. In some cases however it is always best to avoid stereotypes, even mild ones, as these may seem trite.
Education is an important consideration. Educated people behave differently from those with a poor or no education. Characters are likely to appear less aggressive (although appearances can be deceptive) with an education, avoiding direct confrontation and possess a wider vocabulary than others while likely to use correct grammar. Educated characters are also likely to use literary devices like rhetoric to convey their meaning and intent. Conversely, those with a poor education are more likely to use colloquialisms and repeat themselves..
Gender in dialogue only really refers to the stereotypes. Generally female dialogue is considered to be wandering and generally less competitive with a focus on establishing common ground, than male dialogue. This doesn’t mean your female character has to be these things, of course not. However it does highlight how readers perceive female dialogue to be. Finally, it is considered to be widely accepted for a women to be more emotional in public, whereas men are often ridiculed or treated with a measure of discomfort for showing strong emotions in public. Play around with these ideas, and be happy with how much you include in your dialogue. Stereotypes can be ignored!
Family & Religious Background
Every family is unique with its little quirks and traditions and sometimes religious practices plays into those quirks. Where family promotes its own habits of emotion, religion often has social constraints and these will help define your character and their dialogue. Usually a strong religious background will prevent cussing or taking a deities name in vain. A character with strict parents, for example a stern military figure, may remain taciturn and stoic during most of the dialogue and may struggle with showing emotions. Those with a formal upbringing are less likely to interrupt others and use formal titles when addressing figures of authority. Think about where your character has come from and who they are forming a dialogue with.
Ethnicity is a tricky element of a character. As mentioned previously, it is best to avoid stereotypes, but then again, they exist. Ethnicity tends to be tied closely with the previous sections of characterisation. Consider for a moment a high powered business man standing before a board of shareholders. Chances are you imagined a white caucasian man in a suit. Now imagine this business man has received news of the death of a friend, does he; break down in tears or does he clench his jaw, finish the meeting and go home to his den and drink whiskey in stony silence?
Consider a street vendor who sells food receiving the same news, surrounded by his community and friends. Is he more likely to break down in tears than the previous example? Likely, yes. In some cultures it is perfectly acceptable for anyone to drop to the floor in tears, or wail freely. The point we’re trying to make here is that emotion and dialogue are connected, and different ethnicity’s will react to strong emotion or sudden change with different responses. Linking back to education, you may find that the business man will respond to grief with definite terms and phrases, whereas the street vendor is likely to repeat themselves and stammer, vocalising their dismay openly and sporadically.
Circumstances alter our dialogue drastically and are strongly linked to the timing of the characters dialogue. Consider the following lines:
“An hour into our night patrol and suddenly we’re taking fire, tracer rounds lighting up the ridge dead ahead. A storm of bullets was tearing our position up and I had trouble shouting out call signs – I had to check for injured but I couldn’t move my damn lips!”
This is an example of character describing a previous incident. When reflecting, people tend to focus on giving the reader a sense of backstory and details which had likely been soaked in subconsciously. If the action was taking place in real time, either through a flashback or direct descriptions the dialogue would be very different. Keep the context, cut the dialogue right back to something simple, your character probably doesn’t have time to think of a full sentence:
“Taking fire, find cover!”
Or in our previous example, no dialogue at all. Sometimes silence is enough for the reader to get the idea.
Concluding this episode
Some of the best advice you can get is to break the rules, play with your dialogue and proof it many times. If you’re not happy with, move on and come back to it. If you’re unsure, read out the lines as if you were acting and see if the dialogue for each character sounds different enough to be real.
Here’s a nice link for grammar in dialogue. It’s nicely worded, but be aware that dialects of English, such as UK and US English will have a few different ideas. Personally I think if you stick to one type you’ll be fine!
Finally, if you can get a copy, this is the best book I’ve seen out there for UK grammar.
J.D Ferris, CC
Literary Devices Part 1 – Four ideas on How to add something to your fiction, prose or poems
Literary Devices Part 2 – Four more ideas on how to add something to your fiction, prose or poems
Literary Devices Part 3 – How to avoid Exposition Pitfalls in your fiction, prose and poems
Literary devices part 5 – The Mood; setting, diction and bounce