In my previous post, I mentioned the phrase “tools of writing.” In this post, I’ll address one of these said tools: dialogue. Dialogue is (arguably) one of the most important tools of writing, depending on what genre your novel is written in. Nonfiction such as biographies and autobiographies often use less dialogue, as it it’s hard to remember the exact wording of conversations in the past. I’m sure you all can agree with me on that. “He said, ‘I’ll steal your sandwich if you don’t give it back!'”
“No, I said ‘give it back, or I might be angry enough to eat your sandwich.'”
You get the point.
Fiction, whatever genre it may be, can almost always be counted on to have some amount of dialogue. Some novels may have 75% dialogue, while others may have more like 10 or 20%. Your percentage of dialogue over description is completely up to you; but here’s a few general rules that may help you narrow it down.
1: Never use dialogue to communicate something the reader already knows.
This is something I particularly struggle with in my writing. For instance, in the sequel to my upcoming novel, Meant to Rise, two of my four POV characters are taken hostage by the villain. Later on, the other two POVs need to hear the story behind their disappearance. My readers have already gone through ten chapters of this story, and know every detail of where the two characters were, what they did, and how they got out.
So telling my readers what happened again, in a long dialogue, is going to bore them.
That being said, my two POVs who were safe at home do need to know what happened. So, instead of copying the whole story, I might skip over it and say, “After hearing the story, tears were streaming down my face. I was never the same.”
Readers want to know your character’s emotions and reactions to hard events– without having to go through them twice.
In short, if you would skip over it while reading, don’t put it in.
2: Show, don’t tell.
Jumping off of Melissa’s last post on not over-describing or defining the meaning of a sentence or scene, I’ll say “show, not tell.” You’ve probably heard this phrase hundreds of times. Here’s what it means:
I grabbed his hand under the table. My heart was so broken over what had happened, I wanted to go home and cry. After all we had been through, I was terrified of what the future held. I wondered how much longer it would be before I couldn’t take it any more.
This is not bad. But you could say the same thing, perhaps with an even deeper meaning, by using the “show not tell” rule.
As tears streamed down my face, I reached out and grabbed his hand under the table. He tried to smile, but it was weak. A strangled cry escaped my throat, and I lowered my head onto the table and sobbed like there was no tomorrow.
Telling the reader that your character is sad, happy, angry or anything else is less moving than showing them. We feel more emotion when we see something than when we hear about it. It’s one thing to see your friend’s dog die, and that friend’s grief over the loss, and another to hear what happened.
3: Mix it up.
Don’t have two pages straight of dialogue. Tell the reader what’s going on in-between. People don’t stand stick straight, staring at each other, for long periods of time. That would be weird. (Unless you’re having a staring contest). Haha. There’s the fourth grader in me. Here’s an example:
I reached for my tea with a shaky hand. “What do you want to know?” I mumbled.
“I want to know why you are here, alive.” He stood and began pacing the room, back and forth. I turned my eyes upward and stared again at the scar on his arm. It sent shivers down my spine. A scream rose in my throat, and I spoke quickly, before it could escape.
“I’m stubborn,” I said. “I don’t like to be beaten. And I’m smart, too.”
It doesn’t have to be as visual as my description, but definitely make sure your readers can picture the setting, and where your characters are placed in relation to certain objects and other characters while they speak. It makes all the difference to know that the character is dangling from a cliff edge while they say, “I’ll come back,” instead of just as they’re about to die. Knowing the exact degree of danger the situation holds makes the character’s promise all the more bitter-sweet.
So those are some tips to get you going. Now I’ll address my favorite way to use dialogue.
Dialogue in Personality
What would James say in this situation? Is a question I often ask myself. Dialogue is arguably as important to character development as body language, physical presentation, social status, and appearance.
Dialogue is an essential element to creating lovable, relatable characters.
If a novel is written to perfection, a reader should be able to flip to any section of dialogue and know which character is speaking at any given time; not because the book says “Alice said,” but because Alice speaks that way.
We are not perfect authors. No one is. That’s why we have beta readers, editors and proofreaders to help us polish our work.
That being said, we can work toward improvement.
Most novels have one main POV character and several supporting characters. While the supporters may not be very essential to the plot line, they need to have personality. A great example of this is in Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast. Take, for instance, Belle’s Father Maurice. He has a sort of gentle but earnest personality. The villager woman with the super tall bonnet, (does she have a name?) has a very stern personality that comes off as comical because of her clothes. Your supports may not seem very important, but really, they lay a foundation for what kind of book your readers will read. So even if your character is minor, work to develop their speech so that it fits their personality.
Now that I’ve gone on a rant, back to the point: your POV character(s). My first novel has five of these. One is a minor character. Since my book is told from first person, it was really difficult to develop each of those five characters’ voices.
An easy way to do this is to change the feel of the words. One of my characters speaks in old English, because she is from a different country than the rest. One of my characters suffered some verbal abuse as a child, and jokes around almost continuously, to get his mind off of his troubles and hide them from the world. My twins were the most difficult to develop. After I finished the first draft my editor pointed that out: it was hard to distinguish between the two unless you looked at the chapter title, which contained the POV character’s name for the duration of that chapter.
So. When you’re trying to develop a character’s voice, think about their overall personality description. If a person is witty, they might respond with a joke. If a person is shy, they might say little but notice the little things.
Take the sentence: “I fell and skinned my knee.”
James would say, “I fell on my face. In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t fun. Obviously, it hurt.”
Eila would say, “I fell. Rocks are stupid. James laughed at me. It was harder than usual to keep from destroying him.”
Winslow would say, “I fell. Blood poured from my knee. I wondered how exactly the blue fluid in my veins turned red on impact with the atmosphere.”
And lastly, Alice might say, “I fell to the earth in a heap, and skinned my knee quite terribly.”
How a character speaks keys the reader in on their personality; and a character’s personality dictates the way they speak.
The best way to develop your character’s dialogue is to know them well.
This is my favorite way to develop characters, because I can express myself in so many different ways. One character is the witty side of me. Another is the bold side of me. Another is the nerd side of me. Each of your characters is a part of you, in some way, especially if your novel is written in first person. Love your characters.
One last way to improve your dialogue is to read it out loud. (I’m reading this out loud as I edit.) It’ll help you catch any words or phrases that seem unrealistic. If you have more than one character speaking in a scene, (which is more than likely), ask a friend or sibling to read the “lines” of a character, like a read-through of a play. Our brains process things differently when we read them out loud than when we write them.
Now that I’ve written over 1,000 words on how to write, I should go finish the second book in my trilogy. Heh. That’s another tip: don’t procrastinate. (Unless there’s ice cream nearby.)
Let me know what ya’ll think. Are there other methods you’ve found helpful in improving dialogue? I still have a lot to grow in, and I’d love any advice you have. Other comments on this post are also welcome.
Or, if you’re feeling non-productive today, what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
Don’t give up.
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