What does dialogue do for your novel or story?
- It brings your reader right into the action in what feels like real time. It’s the powerful essence of ‘Show, not Tell’.
- It’s a direct route into character. The moment we begin to speak, we reveal who we are, where we come from, our age, viewpoint and a thousand other things.
- Readers love to work out for themselves if they trust characters or not – are they truthful? – and how deeply characters know themselves.
- You (as writer) can show how different your characters are in different contexts. The people we are at work are not the same as who we are with mum or an old friend. The play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (David Hare’s stage version is The Blue Room) exposes how the way we all behave and speak depends on the company we are in: a Duke’s behaviour in bed with a servant girl is not the same as when he is with his wife, for example.
- Which means that dialogue is a quick route into showing your characters being as inconsistent as we all are. This is not the same as lying, it’s just that we are all multitudes inside. If stakes are rising and we are tested beyond our usual limits, our presentable mask slips. This is where you can bring out your character’s vulnerabilities and hook your readers emotionally more than ever.
- Dialogue makes your page more attractive to read. One of the first things we learn in journalism school is that the more ‘white space’ there is around your words, the more likely people (any people) are to stay and read it. Good dialogue has plenty of white space.
- Better than anything else, dialogue can raise questions as well as answer them. You can use it to expose longings and ambitions, hint at secrets.
- You can switch from comedy to tragedy relatively easily, as we do in real life.
- Dialogue breaks up passages of description, varies the texture.
How close is written dialogue to real conversation?
In some writing classes, you’ll be asked to eavesdrop on chatting strangers and record what you hear. That’s a time-consuming way of discovering that we all repeat ourselves a lot, have verbal habits like ‘You know’ or ‘Yeh yeh’, say the same thing several times in other ways, interrupt each other and do not always reply to what the other says as if it’s a game of ping pong. Eavesdropping is fun, and all writers do it. Be careful though: if strangers find out what you’re up to, they might not be best pleased.
The biggest lesson you will learn from your recording exercise is that dialogue needs editing. A lot of editing.
If you’re on a roll with a first draft, don’t let thoughts of editing get too much in your way. The only rule of first drafts is to keep writing and at all costs finish, so best of luck. We’ll leave you to it.
If you are ready to take things further, let’s look at how we make dialogue on the page feel real while doing the work we want it to do in terms of character and plot.
DIALOGUE & CHARACTER
What is revealed in the way we speak?
- Age, personality, birth place and origin, economic status, education, world view.
- Character traits you have been working on, such as the most important wound in your characters’ lives or what they passionately want and need above all else.
- Relationships in our lives come through how we speak. Whether people are happy at home or have established religious faith is usually obvious from their conversation.
- Fears, ambitions and dreams creep in too.
- Any verbal tics you have given them (like Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’).
Each character also arrives in every scene with:
- Context (has she slept badly, has he just been sacked, have they got money worries etc)
- Mood (happy/sad/angry/fed up etc).
- Agenda: what is each character looking for? We are all always looking for something from every encounter we have with others, whether we are aware of it or not. If a journalist is trying to persuade someone to be interviewed or to divulge a secret, that’s an obvious agenda. It can be more subtle: when you come home at the end of a day’s work and call ‘Hallo’, is there anything you want from that moment? Dramatic conflict (the essence of all stories) comes from the clash between our agendas and what actually happens. Don’t be too easy on your characters and give them what they want too soon.
Imagine you’re in a park and see two people with a baby buggy. You move so close, you can hear what they say …
For five minutes, write their dialogue, showing as much about each character and their relationship as you can. Don’t bother with too many attributions (he said, she said, he muttered, she explained) – let rip and enjoy it.
Psychologists have discovered that in ordinary conversation, we rarely say more than 7 to 10 words at a time. In plays and soap operas, it can be even less.
Re-write the first exercise, keeping each line to 7 words or less. Be strict with yourself about the word count.
Once your scene is flowing, try letting the reader know that there’s something that one is hiding from the other.
People move, think and feel while they speak too. Rewrite Exercise 2 with brief actions, thoughts and feelings between the lines of dialogue. Now you have prose fiction as opposed to a radio script!
Two main problems crop up when we write dialogue in first drafts.
First is writing a radio script by accident. You’re deep at your page or screen with the action around you, rolling nicely to the page. Your characters are so present with you that you’re soaked in what they’re saying and their words to take over. This is exciting and marvellous and is one of the great ways to produce a first draft. But if you look back later and find that for page after page, you have almost nothing but dialogue – it’s time to edit.
The second is allowing your characters to fall into lengthy speeches.
There are times when one person in a conversation gets to hold forth, when one is a teacher or in some other position of authority, for example, or one has a problem to unfold. But most conversation is an exchange of short lines.
The good news is that the short stuff engages readers more easily, feels more real and, in the right scene, can raise the stakes for you all by itself by bringing up the pace.
- Invent a scene or choose one from your work in progress.
- Sketch out the mood, context, agenda for each character before you start.
- Write your scene giving your characters no more than 7 words each for at least 100 words.
- Put a single line of action (she twisted her wedding ring, he held his breath) or thought or feeling between each line.
- Be amazed at how much has been revealed in those few words, and how actively it all reads.
- Notice what your characters have not said, and the power of that. Renoir, 1879
- Keep writing, and when the scene needs it, allow a longer speech to one of your characters.
See how the change of pace makes the whole scene work better for you? The seven-word exercise can feel really hard and unreasonable but it’s one of the most valuable fiction-writing skills there is. If you do it often, it will soon feel natural and your dialogue will improve no end.