DUMP THE SMALL TALK
For a story to move fast and clean, the dialogue must serve to either develop the character or advance the action. If it doesn’t, consider cutting it.
Start by eliminating small talk. Fictional dialogue is always large talk. Cut out ritual exchanges and fillers like “uh” and “well”.
SHOW DON’T TELL
Keep in mind the old show-don’t-tell rule to cut unnecessary explanations:
“You never liked my mother!” Nora shouted.
“You never liked my mother!” Nora slammed the kettle down.
The second example shows rather than tells that Nora was shouting.
KEEP TAGS SIMPLE OR SCARCE
Some writers strive to avoid the constant he said/she said with variations such as asked, answered, whispered, murmured. These are acceptable, but can become ridiculous if overused. If an identity tag is really required for clarity, a simple he said/ she said is less obtrusive to the reader and has the advantage of almost disappearing from the narrative without stealing attention. Some examples:
“If you tell anyone what I have done, you’ll be sorry.” (This is recognized as a threat; there is no need to add “he threatened” to the end of it.)
“What a wonderful evening,” Tony breathed, moving closer to Kay.
“Isn’t it?” she sighed. “Look at the stars.”
(Just try breathing or sighing real words while you are talking.)
. Tony moved closer to Kay. “What a wonderful evening.”
She turned to face him. “Isn’t it? Just look at those stars.”
I prefer to use action beats to denote who is talking. Action beats set the scene more visually while still identifying who is speaking. Since you change paragraphs at every change in speaker, try including in that speaker’s paragraph a physical action or facial expression or visible emotion instead of he said/she said. (Of course, action beats can be over-used as well, and an occasional he said/she said speeds the flow or may be necessary to maintain sense. Judge by the rhythm or flow of the piece in making your decision.) Some examples of action beats to identify the speaker:
Nora walked over to the window and stubbed out her cigarette. “You never loved me.”
“You did what!?” Dwayne’s eyes bulged and his face turned nearly purple.
At the smell of cooking cabbage, my senses raced back to my childhood. “Mother?” I turned to look into the kitchen, knowing she would not be there.
She shrank from the man’s raised fist and turned to run. “John, look out!”
“I want you to go on a secret mission for me, for the Brotherhood.” His eyes remained hooded and expressionless as he leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers.
An adrenalin surge made me dizzy. “Sir, I would do anything for the Brotherhood, and for you.” My gut tensed, and my mind raced for an excuse. “But my wife is ready to deliver our first child. Is there no one else you can send?”
Voice is very important in character development. Work as hard as you can to keep all of your characters from sounding alike, from sounding like you the author talking. A character’s word choice reveals his or her character:
“Do you know how to milk a cow, Grandma?”
“I know how to milk it, feed it, slaughter it, skin it, drain it, quarter it, roast it, and eat it.” (The author could have told us that the grandmother was feisty, competent and had a sense of humor, but instead he let Grandma speak for herself.)
Above all, dialogue must sound natural. Ordinary people and especially children don’t use flowery images in every conversation:
“Oh, how beautiful the pool is. It’s almost as if the sun is trapped in the sparkling water.”
A kid would be more likely to say: “The pool looks great. Last one in is a rotten egg!”
A priestess to the mother goddess might speak in low, rushing, mystical tones.
A shepherd would sound more rustic, crude, and simple, using plain, one-syllable words and terse sentences.
A king’s language to his advisors would sound well educated or philosophical, and consist of longer words and more sophisticated concepts.
Dialogue can be used to affect pacing: A moment of tension requires an economy of words. In a tense scene use shorter sentences, shorter words, and fewer he said/she said tag lines. Conversely, using longer words and sentences, and long paragraphs, and more tag lines automatically relaxes tension, creates languid scenes in which a sense of tranquility prevails.
Of all the dialogue rules you will hear, this one is the most important. Dialogue in a novel must be bigger than life and in conflict.
Just as a description of two young lovers spending a perfect day out at the zoo doesn’t constitute a plot (not unless the girl falls in the lion pen), likewise two people chatting about nothing much at all, and not even disagreeing, isn’t really strong dialogue so much as a pleasant conversation.
Things get much more interesting when dialogue involves subtle tension or discord, because when characters have conflicting goals, consequences are sure to follow. Maybe Dick wants to stick to the same old routine and Jane wants some adventure in their relationship.
There is nothing wrong with using some everyday conversation in a novel, as sometimes a simple exchange of information between characters will be exactly what is required, but powerful or interesting dialogue is about conflict.
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