Some writers believe that dialogue is all about the characters – what they say, how they say it, and what they’re doing as they speak. If you’re one of those writers, you are almost correct. Yes, dialogue is about your characters. But more importantly, dialogue is the voice of your entire book.
Let’s look at it this way. You will lose huge readership potential if you only use dialogue to make your characters speak during scenes. A brilliant plot may be worthless without good dialogue.
The Purpose of Dialogue
“What are you doing here?” said Sally. “You’re supposed to be at work.”
What is going on here? You might follow up with some narration that describes Sally’s situation. Maybe she’s upset that this person is not working, or perhaps she is happy or surprised.
“What are you doing here?” said Sally, frowning slightly. “You’re supposed to be at work.”
A smile spread across Sally’s face. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at work.”
Sally’s eyes grew very wide. “What are you doing here?” she said, choking on her iced tea. “You’re supposed to be at work.”
Without narration, we know how Sally feels in each of the three scenarios. In each case, the dialogue serves the purpose of making the character speak, informing the reader as to what is going on, and the feeling and emotions involved in the situation.
Most writers know the power of dialogue, but it’s easy to forget in the heat of a powerful plot. Remember, too much narration is boring. Instead of pages and pages of narration describing what’s going on, make your characters act it out instead. When narrating, you have to lay everything out on the table – what happened, how it happened, what the characters are thinking, and how the characters feel. Use the perfect blend of dialogue and narration to create an effective story.
Don’t Tell Them – Let the Characters Speak
You might feel compelled to describe scenery and image through narration. You can certainly do so, but don’t go over the top. Painting pictures with words is a true art, but ten pages of image descriptions will have your readers yawning. You can incorporate narration and dialogue to paint the perfect image.
There’s a huge difference between telling the story through narration, and the characters telling the story through dialogue and thoughts. When your characters are interacting, the story is always more interesting. How many times have you told a funny incident to your friends and they didn’t find it funny? Many times, you just have to be there to get the joke. It’s the same for your book. Let your characters act it out. Even in narration, always include your characters’ thoughts and emotions.
Who Said It?
“I apologize I could not hear a thing. She closed the door so that I was unable to hear their conversation.”
“What would you like me to do?”
Just imagine an average 10-year-old American boy saying the above phrases. It hardly fits at all! Our 10-year-old Johnny would say it more like this:
“Sorry, didn’t hear anything. She closed the door so I didn’t hear what they said.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Similarly so, a macho-man would never use the words “mauve”, “cashmere”, “baby blue”, or “bunny rabbit”. When it comes to speech, gender matters. Determine whether your characters are male or female, then decide whether they will be masculine male, feminine female, or vice versa. Perhaps you have a masculine female character to portray her life with her father and five brothers. You decide, but make sure their speech fits the part.
Your characters’ way of speaking should fit their age, sex, class, level of intelligence and location. Use regional slang for your character who grew up in the mean streets of New York. If your character was born and raised in England, perhaps words such as “loo” or “lift” naturally belong in her vocabulary. Your character’s education is also important. For someone who has no formal education, grammar and vocabulary may not be perfect. Whatever situation your characters are in, their way of speaking should be a natural fit.
As a word of caution, use regional slang wisely. It should work well with the time period your story is set in. And it has to be used correctly, and in the right context or your book may not please certain readers. It might pay to study or even visit the area where your story will take place, if it exists. Research everything about your character to see how he or she should speak.
Play it by Ear
After your dialogue is written, read it out loud. You’ll see that saying it and writing it will produce a different effect. What sounds good on paper might not sound so great when said out loud.
Watch out for awkward dialogue. If it doesn’t sound right, you don’t want to use it in your book unless it happens to fit your character. A tape recorder may help you in the process. Record each piece of dialogue you aren’t sure about and listen to it a few times. When you finally find the right words, record and listen to your new dialogue. And in any given scene, make sure the dialogue flows well together.
Take note that you might end up changing your dialogue two, three, or 100 times. It’s this kind of attention to detail that matters to your publisher. All in all, your dialogue should sound great. Your readers will love and appreciate it.