Ruth E. Walker
Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:
I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”
In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.
I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.
I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.
Dialogue has work to do
I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.
But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:
- propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
- foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
- establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”
- convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
- highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
- establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak
If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.
For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.
The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.
Here are two approaches to consider.
1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.
“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”
By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.
“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”
2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”
Knowing when to bring in dialogue
If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.
I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.
Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.
Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.
It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.
Did You Know?
We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.
Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.
Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.