“I want to talk to you.”
“Hi, Maggy. How are you?”
“Don’t ‘how are you’ me! I can’t believe that you came back to take away Cole’s land.”
Okay, I admit it. Dialogue is my favorite part in the book. I just love to hear people get into arguments, dodge questions, tell it like it is, and most of all, give each other the what for. Sometimes (and this is the schizophrenic writer side of me) I will even talk out loud as I’m writing dialogue, just to get the inflection. (Besides, I can say anything to myself and not get into trouble!)
But what is the secret to sizzling dialogue? What’s the difference between writing conversations that zing or mind-numbing dialogue that causes a book to end face down on the bureau collecting dust?
I think it’s all about adding a little GUSTO. That element that contains attitude and energy and courage and everything your character has inside of him. What do I mean? Let’s take a closer look:
Goals – every character has goals for the scene, as well as for the book. And good dialogue reveals those goals – not only in what is being said, but what is NOT being said. Don’t let your character lay it all on the line – make him hide his motives to everyone but the reader. In fact – don’t even let them answer the questions they’re asked. Dodge, be evasive, and most of all, never give the expected answer. Not if you don’t want readers to skip lines.
Useful information – Dialogue should add new information to the reader – but DON’T use it in place of backstory – eg: “Joe, I know that you’re the great uncle of my step-sister sally, and that you were having an affair secretly with my dad’s ex-wife who left her and became an alcoholic and eventfully died after going to rehab of liver disease, and that you now got your life together and became a Christian after attending a Billy Graham event in Minneapolis four years ago, after which you dedicated your life to helping orphans in Russia, but could you tell me why my step-sister won’t speak to my little brother, especially since they used to be so close, until he left for the navy two years ago and is in now in Navy Seal training because this was the dream of my father due to my grandfather who was one of the first SEALS in WW2?”
Make dialogue meaningful – don’t ask how they are, or how the family is, how the weather is (unless it’s a weather book). Cut right to the meat of the story with new information.
Stop Shouting! Don’t use Tom Swifts – ie: “Stop Shouting!” he yelled. “I’ll tell you all about it,” she explained. Use tags sparingly, and keep them to he said, she said, with the occasional, he murmured, or she whispered. In fact, body Language and Active Narrative in place of dialogue tags speaks as loudly as words, if not louder.
Here are two scenes, one with dialogue tags, one without, with just body language and narrative. Which one reveals more?
“I don’t care where you’re going,” Janice murmured. “Stay out all night if you want to. In fact, I hope you have a great time.”
“I don’t care where you’re going.” Janice barely looked up from her book as her sister stood by the door, question on her face. “Stay out all night if you want to.” She put a thumb over the paragraph to keep her place. Looked up and smiled, a real smile that filled her chest and made her sister smile back. “In fact, I hope you have a great time.”
Tell it like it is: Cut to the chase and say what your character REALLY wants to say, even if it is only to take away attention from his real agenda. The best dialogue is when you think, oh my, I can’t believe she (or he) had the guts to say that!
don’t Overuse Names! We as writers use them to help us remember who is who when we’re writing. But the reader doesn’t need them, so cut them out as you are editing. Ie – “Hey Sam, how are you? Hey Joe, I’m good, but my car is in the shop. Sam, your car is always in the shop. I know, Joe, but it’s got a bad starter. Have you ever thought of getting it fixed, Sam?”
Have fun with your dialogue. Let your characters say what they really want to say. And then, let the fireworks begin!
“It’s Noble land. But, Maggy, this isn’t about you.”
“This is completely about me, Nick. I know that! I’m not an idiot.”
“Of course you’re not. It’s just that . . . this is between me and Cole.”
“You think I don’t know why you left? Why you haven’t come back for ten years? You’re really a piece of work, Noble. Well, for your information, Cole is twice the man you are. He’s kind and honorable and patient, and he keeps his promises. He deserves that land your father gave him. And you, of all people, should know that.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Maggy, but you got this all wrong.”
“You turned out exactly as my mother predicted. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to her sooner.”
Excerpted from Reclaiming Nick*
We’re going to do some house calls at MBT this week – send us a small dialogue passage you may be having trouble on, tell us the goals of the scene for the people who are talking, and MBT will see what we can do to help. Also – tomorrow well talk about INTERNAL monologue…to italic or not to italic, that is the question! And Thursday I’m going to give you my biggest secret to adding spice to your dialogue.
Of course those brave Voices who share their work on MBT will receive a preview copy of Wiser than Serpents… So – send us your troublespots! firstname.lastname@example.org