“Dialogue is a necessary evil.” - Fred Zinnemann
Of all the hurdles an aspiring author must overcome, the hurdle of engaging dialogue is one of the most daunting. Above and beyond conveying information, good conversations in a book require an intimate understanding of the characters and how their respective methods of communication are best portrayed to the reader. And, even with clever modes of speech, the temptation to cloak information dumping under the guise of dialogue remains an ever-present threat. Beyond all of that, dialogue tags grin behind disarming simplicity, ready to confound even the best turn of phrase with clunky descriptions. But, take heart! The dragon of dialogue may be daunting, but it is far from undefeatable.
In the interest of victory over this dragon, let’s take a look at three key elements of dialogue and how to avoid common pitfalls of each one.
“Dialogue. The art of verbal action for the page, stage, and screen.” - Robert McKee
Someone once told me that communication is ninety percent body language. The idea stuck with me and gave me pause that night as I sat down to work on my current writing project. How could body language be accurately conveyed in a non-visual medium? The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” can be a slap in the face to those of us who have chosen to convey our art in written form, but does it actually take a thousand words to paint a picture in the mind of the reader? “Show, don’t tell” is another expression that was coined in the film industry but has been adopted by writers. So, what does it really mean to “show” the reader what is happening when our characters are speaking? Consider the following example:
“Do what you want,” he said sullenly.
Aside from the inappropriate amount of weight the adverb has to carry in that sentence, there remains a complete lack of dramatic tension that should be present.
He crossed his arms over his chest and turned his eyes away.
“Do what you want,” he said.
Perfect? Not yet, but the dialogue just took on a life of its own thanks to two simple clues given by the character’s body language. The best part is, it didn’t even take a thousand words to paint the picture. Consider the clues you want to give to your reader about your characters’ body language as they speak. Are they standing or sitting? Relaxed or tense? Making eye contact or looking away? The list goes on, but the principle remains the same: the non-verbal portion of communication is no less critical than the verbal elements of dialogue.
Even if communication is ninety percent body language, the remaining ten percent should not be neglected. That remaining percentage is how your characters vocalize. The most extreme examples of distinct vocalization can be found in books like Huckleberry Finn and Cloud Atlas when the words of certain characters are written phonetically rather than grammatically. While that method can be effective, it shouldn’t be the only tool in your toolbelt.
Vocabulary plays a significant role in engaging dialogue. Does your character have a broad palette of words in their vocabulary or are they simple and straight forward in how they talk? Consider your characters’ education levels, literary preferences, and cultural backgrounds when determining their vocabulary. But, be careful not to alienate your reader by always having well-educated characters speak in flowery language while ill-educated characters are devoid of eloquence. Even simple phrases can be powerful and wisdom is often found in practical knowledge.
“Nothing teaches you as much about writing dialogue as listening to it.” - Judy Blume
Rhythm is most often thought of as a musical term, but have you ever stopped to consider how it applies to how we talk? From the up and down lilts of inflection to the pauses brought about by breathing and stopping to think, there are ebbs and flows to spoken word. Taking the time to consider how those ebbs and flows would affect your dialogue is critical to transforming an otherwise bland transcript into an engaging conversation.
When a character has a monologue, especially when they’re revealing details of their past, it can be tempting to let all of the information come out in a single “shot” of dialogue. But, consider the following: when was the last time you told a story about your past that was completely free of pauses, even to breathe? Whether your character is revealing a deep secret, sharing a past hurt, or entertaining the reader with an anecdote, breaking up the monologue with moments of reaction (even silent reaction) and the chance for the speaking character to breathe and think about what they will say next will not only avoid the dreaded information dump but also supply the one-sided dialogue with that little twist that makes it real to the reader. That twist is the up and down flow of rhythm.
“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and the crossings of legs.” - Jerome Stern
One last thought to consider when taking your place to fight the dragon of dialogue is dialogue tags. There is no shortage of synonyms for “said” and “asked,” but in the scope of a work of fiction there should rarely be a need to make use of any of those synonyms. In light of everything we have already talked about, the dialogue should ultimately speak for itself in conveying the tone of what is being said. If there are body language clues and a realistic rhythm to what is being said, the need to clarify how it is said fades away. When a character clenches his fists and goes red in the cheeks before making a statement, there is little question as to whether or not he shouted. Should the temptation to use a tag other than “said” or “asked” ever arise, ask yourself the question: does this unique tag increase the reader’s understanding of what is being said or simply add an unnecessary description? When in doubt, stick with simplicity.
“You may not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” - Jodi Picoult
As with everything in the world of writing, the best way to conquer the dragon of dialogue is to dive in and get the words on the page. Try out new ways of expressing your characters’ communication through body language. Listen carefully to the lilts and pauses present in everyday conversation and then do your best to represent it in your writing. Keep your dialogue tags simple and let the conversations speak for themselves. After doing all that, do it all again! We’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg that is writing good dialogue and I am just as eager to hear your thoughts and tips as I am to share my own. Until next time, happy writing.
Guest post by
Jordan. C. Nieland
Over the last ten years, I have honed my writing craft in songwriting, technical publication, professional communication, and essay writing that prompted invitations for public speaking. Now, my debut novel is currently in development. You may find me on Instagram @jordan.c.nieland