Published in Novel Advice, Institute of Children’s Literature Online, Gotta Write Network
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DIALOGUE: A FINE ART
Like real people, characters communicate, respond, and react to each other in their own unique voices. Dialogue isn’t difficult, but it is an art.
How does an author create realistic dialogue? Let’s find out.
As a writer, research dialogue with the same passion that you research history, scenes, and characters. How? Throw yourself into crowds. Make notes in your journal on personalities, accents, dialects, and gestures, such as hand movements, swaying back and forth, shifting from right foot to left, roaming eyes, etc.
While we’re on the subject of journaling, let’s take it a step further. If your notebook is crowded with scenery, character descriptions, prose, feelings, and dialogue, in no particular order, it is probably difficult to locate specifics. May I suggest purchasing a 1-1/2” to 2” notebook and several dividers? Your dividers can be entitled, “Scenery,” “Character Descriptions,” “Plots,” “Feelings,” “Dialogue,” etc. This allows you to flip directly to the section on which you’re researching.
Now, let’s develop “Dialogue.”
1. People jabber. They don’t finish sentences, and say things that mean absolutely nothing. Choose dialogue carefully, remembering its purpose. Don’t use useless jabber unless it’s an important character trait, or serves as background to an intense scene. Also, use gestures to cut conversation into tasty slices, as shown below:
At a cozy corner table, Devin squeezed Shana’s hand, and gazed deep into her eyes. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” he said.
“More tea, sir?” the waiter asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Why?” Shana asked.
Shana looked at the tea pitcher hovering over her glass. “Yes, please,” she said.
“Very good, madam.”
“I’m going to find my real father.”
“Will that be all, sir?” the waiter asked.
Devin forced a grin. “Yes, thank you.”
Shana nodded once to the waiter, and lifted the glass to her lips. “When are you coming back?” she asked.
The intervention of the waiter and character gestures adds to the scene, making it more real and intense.
2. Good dialogue is consistent. Tone, regional flavor, social status, and culture all play an integral part. Your readers should be able to tell which character is talking by what they say and how they say it, without dialogue tags. A lawyer and a farmer will talk differently. A politician’s speech will differ greatly from a child’s narration at a school program. Consider these two characters:
“Ma’am, we’re through with your yard.”
“Did you trim the back hedges by the pool?”
“And my roses. You fertilized and watered them?”
“All the walks and drives are edged?”
“Edged and cut, ma’am.”
“And you turned the mulch in the daylily bed?”
“Very good. How much do I owe you?”
“I guess a hundred ought to do it. Uh, ma’am, if you don’t mind, cash’ll do just fine.”
“Oh dear, that does cause a problem. I didn’t go by the bank today. I’ll have to write a check”
“Ma’am, meaning no disrespect, but your last check didn’t go through ‘til the third time around.”
“Well, I assure you that was certainly due to a bank error and not my own.”
“Most likely was, ma’am. Still, I’ll be happy to perch myself right here on this curb ‘til you get back from the bank. Yes’m, that’ll be just fine.”
From the dialect, you can discern which character is talking. Also note that it’s not necessary to use a lot of misspelled words in portraying uneducated or backwoods characters as indicated below:
“Shore nuff. I’s gone git to that rite off.”
Don’t frustrate readers by forcing them to decipher character dialect.
3. Silence often speaks louder than words, can reveal character traits, and develop plot. Peruse the following silent treatment.
“Hi, Julie. Julie? Anybody home? Aw, come on, I said I was sorry. What do you want me to do, get on my knees? Okay, then. Now, is that better? For the umpteenth time, I’m begging from the bottom of my heart to forgive me. Hey, don’t go. Julie!”
We never hear from Julie, but from the one-sided conversation above, we know she is mad, that she has been hurt, is unforgiving, and that the unnamed character is willing to ask for forgiveness many times, and even get down on his knees to ask some more. The plot has moved forward and characterization has developed.
4. Many novice writers make the mistake of using monotonous conversation to portray histories, believing it creates active writing. Actually it does, but there is a right way and a wrong way.
The wrong way:
have you got a big day at the largest hospital in
“Well, hon, you know that because I’m Bay Town Hospital’s chief heart surgeon, I’ll be performing bypass surgeries, mentoring doctors and nurses, and diagnosing patients who have traveled hundreds of miles for diagnosis.”
“Well, that’s what you get for graduating top of your class and being the best heart surgeon in the southeast.”
helpless, downhearted client are you helping today at your small law office on
“Oh, Darling, so many people down on their luck can’t afford attorneys.”
“I know, dear. I only wish your hard-hearted father understood and wasn’t constantly after you to join his prestigious law firm.”
The right way:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting dressed.”
“But the doctor hasn’t seen you yet.”
“Why didn’t you tell me the doctor’s a damn spic?”
“Honey, Dr. Gongales is the best oncologist in the Southeast.”
“He’s a spic.”
“What does it matter? He’s…”
“I said I’m not staying.”
“Don’t. You’re hurting me.”
From the conversation above you know the doctor is Puerto Rican, and the husband is a bigot, probably abusive. We can also draw the conclusion that, since the wife is still with the jerk, something is keeping her there. Children? Fear? Money? What? You’ve stirred your reader’s curiosity and they will continue reading to find out.
In summary, good dialogue must:
Readers often skim over long, narrative descriptions to get to dialogue. Make sure its worth their while. Remember, dialogue is a fine art. Study it, practice it, and revise it until it’s ready for the unveiling.
Richelle Putnam is a former writer for All Headline News. She has been published in Common Ties, E2K Literary Journal, World Wide Writers, Orchard Press Mysteries, Southern Hum, The Copperfield Review, Cayuse Press, Writer’s Journal, Obadiah Press’s Living By Faith Anthology, A tribute to Mothers Anthology, A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Daughters, and more. Her children’s literature has been published on the Institute of Children’s Literature’s website, Writing Korner, and Wee Ones, Boy’s Quest, Appleseeds, and Hopscotch Magazine for Girls; Her work is soon to be released in Flashquake, Fireflies in Fruit Jars Anthology, and GCWA “Mississippi” Anthology. Her novel, Fallout, was released in 2000; She is the Founder and President of Mississippi Writers Guild. www.richelleputnam.net