I'm so pleased C.J. invited me to discuss dialogue today. Dialogue is possibly the most valued tool in your writer's kit. Some writers are intimidated by dialogue—how can they possibly get the people inside their heads to have voices of their own and say things that are interesting, while they convey important information and move the story forward?
I've had dialogue in my manuscripts described as "crisp" and that it "zings." But one contest judge summed it all up: "I could hear the twangs and sounds of the secondary characters without being overwhelmed, while providing everyone with their own voice." Jackpot—dialogue that reveals character but doesn't call overt attention to itself.
Dialogue doesn't scare me. I revel in it. It's the natural result of working fifteen years in educational and professional theater. I've analyzed scripts and helped bring them to the stage as an actor, stage manager, director, even playwright. From Shakespeare to Neil Simon to my own work, I've learned heaps about dialogue. But translating those lessons to narrative fiction took some practice. Here are some challenges I faced with my early attempts at dialogue, and how I applied what I'd learned in theater to help me conquer them.
Challenge: My early dialogue was clever, witty, a little sarcastic—the problem was all the characters sounded alike, they all sounded stilted, and they all sounded a little like ME.
Solution: Review your character sketches. Characters are individuals and, as such, have unique qualities to their speech. Gender, age, education, lifestyle, income--these and many other factors come across in how they speak. Guard against writing all dialogue the way YOU speak and think. Feel free to use imperfect grammar, incomplete sentences, and creative punctuation to make your characters' spoken words SOUND like they would say them.
Challenge: My dialogue sounded natural and realistic, but it tended to meander, and scenes went on forever.
Solution: Sacrifice some of that realism. No one needs to read half a page of your hero ordering breakfast from the punk waitress with the nose-ring (unless, she's the heroine). Cut extraneous words that sound so natural: Well, um, yes and no (they're often implied through action or the rest of the line the character speaks), so, then, now, and characters calling each other by their proper names. Dialogue needs to reveal character, convey pertinent information, heighten conflict and progress the story.
Challenge: My dialogue tags were obtrusive. Characters chortled, wheezed, laughed, shouted, and so much more.
Solution: Follow the example of play scripts. They rarely suggest to the actor how to say a line. The dialogue and punctuation is usually self-explanatory. Trust the reader to interpret the character's words. "Hush," she shushed, is redundant. "Hey!" he shouted, is redundant. The simple tag "said" is the least obtrusive—for most readers it's invisible.
Challenge: My dialogue scenes were filled with characters looking up, down, across, and over, nodding, smiling, blinking, breathing (sometimes not breathing), staring, gazing, standing, sitting—it was BORING.
Solution: Many play scripts are 99% dialogue, with very few suggestions as to action, except where it becomes vital to the plot of the play. Directors and actors spend weeks working out the "stage business" or "blocking" of what the characters do while they talk. Often, we get so caught up writing the dialogue, the internal thoughts, the emotions, we forget that our characters aren't in a bubble. Let them interact with their surroundings.
Extra tip: Many actors use "props" (short for properties—any item the actor handles onstage) to help convey their character to the audience. This can be as simple as a pair of sunglasses for your hero (does he rest them on his head, lower them down his nose to peer over them at the heroine, hide behind them, readjust them at a key moment in the dialogue).
Challenge: My characters made speeches. You know, those lengthy paragraphs of monologue.
Solution: Monologues work in plays—if your character is alone onstage. If there are two characters, the playwright uses the second character to interject comments and break up that big speech. This is a good opportunity to reveal more about both characters and increase conflict—your scene has conflict, right?
Challenge: Important bits of information got buried within my dialogue scenes. I wanted to find a way emphasize it that felt natural to the reader.
Solution: In staging a play, directors have actors "point" certain moments. You can point a bit of dialogue or point an action. In narrative fiction, you can use this same technique. First and last sentences of paragraphs tend to carry more emphasis to the reader. If you're combining dialogue with a narrative action, whichever you put last will tend to carry more emphasis.
"Dialogue" + Action will point the action, while Action + "Dialogue" will point the dialogue.
One of the best self-teaching tools I implemented was to review my dialogue scenes by reading the narrative parts and tags silently, but reading the dialogue out loud. It gave me a physical illustration of how the reader's brain had to switch gears while reading. Another way of doing this is to highlight the dialogue—just the spoken words. You may even want to use different colors for different characters (this comes in extra handy if you fear your characters are all starting to sound alike).
Do you have blocks of pure dialogue? This can be a good thing, especially if there are only two characters in the scene. Once the reader gets into the flow of the conversation, it's unnecessary—and disruptive—to tag every line.
Do you have a dialogue paragraph where the character speaks, has an action, speaks, has a tag, speaks, has another action? These can be hard on the reader, because every time the writer interrupts the flow of the dialogue, your reader has to shift gears. It's not necessarily wrong, but I recommend using it minimally and for specific effect.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up the importance of the spoken word in his immortal play, Pygmalion, later adapted to the award-winning musical, My Fair Lady. Below, a brief line sung by linguist Professor Henry Higgins:
An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak.
Oh why can't the English learn to speak?
—My Fair Lady's "Why Can't the English," lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
The movie offers a great research opportunity to study dialogue. Its London setting provides characters with different dialects, different social classes, different economic and educational backgrounds. The scenes are dialogue-heavy, because it was originally a stage play, and that dialogue is designed to reinforce character, illustrate the conflicts, and move the plot forward. Plus they're celebrating the importance of language throughout.
If you're familiar with the movie, but don't have three hours to watch it, pop by this site and skim through George Bernard Shaw's original play script.
Best wishes to you all on your writing. If you have other tips on dialogue, please leave a comment here. I'm always looking to add to my bag of tricks!
Former theater professional Amy Atwell realized her love of plays stemmed from the stories they brought to life and launched her quest to tell the stories in her head, first as play scripts, then as novels. Her Golden Heart® Finalist manuscript, Public Relations, features a soap opera hunk and a Broadway wanna-be finding love in the heart of Manhattan. Read more about her at www.amyatwell.com.