Admit it. You eavesdrop. It’s all right, everyone does. Some anthropologists even assert that humans evolved to gossip, because exchanging information about others informs our social bonds and behavior. In novel-writing, dialogue functions as a critical storytelling tool. But fictional conversations differ from those in real life. They must move the story forward through the twin purpose of revealing character and advancing the plot.
Character Through Dialogue
Dialogue tells us a lot about the speakers and the relationship between them. The way I speak with my Laddie differs from the way I speak with my mother, or my supervisor at work, or my three-year-old niece. But each of these interactions reveals something about me: my competitiveness, my sense of humor, my diplomacy skills, or my willingness to sing Sesame Street ditties in public. We learn characters and connections by observing how individuals converse with one another.
Since players in a novel all think and act in different ways, their speech should reflect this. Words are an extension of personality. Vocabulary, tempo, and slang all inform our perception of character. Just be judicious in their use. Too many colloquialisms or non-standard spellings to convey an accent can make text hard to read, or result in offensive stereotypes. Occasional dialect is enough to give impression of voice.
Characteristic doesn’t mean completely realistic. Verbal litter such as “um”, “uh,” “like”, and “y’know” pollutes most people’s speech. We exchange empty pleasantries, asking how someone’s been when we don’t care and automatically responding “fine, thanks” even if it’s a lie. Fiction spares us such tedium. Keep dialogue brisk, clean, and purposeful.
Plot Through Dialogue
When I studied screenwriting in college, I learned how to craft a story comprised almost exclusively of dialogue. With the visual component stripped away, characters’ speech becomes the backbone of the plot. A two-hour film or a 44-minute television episode doesn’t allow time for flaccid conversations. Go read a script or screenplay: you won’t find many extraneous lines. Every word must must convey meaning. Apply this pragmatism to the dialogue in your novel.
If each conversation is a movie scene, it must advance the reel. Most real-life conversations leave us in the same place we began. We might decide what to cook for dinner or update the state of family affairs, but our circumstances remain largely unchanged. In novels, every exchange should move the protagonist closer to (or farther from) their objective. A character might learn something advantageous, receive news that weakens their resolve, or raise more questions to pique the reader’s interest. Dialogue can alter the way characters see a situation, another character, or themselves. It can build suspense and conflict.
Building plot through dialogue doesn’t mean using it as a vehicle for raw exposition. We’ve all seen at least one cheesy sci-fi show where an expendable crew member announces something like this: “Captain, the reactor core is overheating! If it reaches one thousand degrees, the whole ship will explode!” Any captain would know perfectly well the consequences of an overheated reactor core. The explanation exists for the audience’s benefit, and forcing it into a character’s mouth makes the dialogue feel fake.
People don’t tell each other things they already know. A husband wouldn’t tell his wife that “Peggy, my twin sister, had to take our mother, Florence, to the hospital again because of her chronic illness.” She would already know who Peggy is, and that her mother-in-law suffers from poor health. The husband would say simply: “Peggy had to take Mom to the hospital again.” Will this confuse the reader? On the contrary. It prompts questions, and the reader will keep turning pages for answers.
Conversations don’t happen in vacuum. People talk in the context of action: drinking coffee, doing chores, driving down the highway. Rooting dialogue in a physical environment makes the story feel more authentic and adds nuance to the scene. Actions and descriptions control the pace of dialogue, and even reveal character. For example:
- A nervous person might pick threads off their suit during a job interview.
- Someone arguing while they cook dinner might chop an onion with vehemence.
- People sitting in a ballpark might converse amid the crack of bats and the holler or beer.
Weaving behavior and backdrop into dialogue avoids the ping-pong effect of characters throwing sentences back and forth out of context. It also affords space for the most powerful statement of all: silence. What characters don’t say can reveal more than words. Silence can communicate discomfort, disagreement, anger, satisfaction, apathy, and more, depending on how it’s framed. While one character talks, their conversational partner might stare at the floor, fiddle with jewelry, or indicate their emotions in some other way.
In my teenage years, I believed that writing “he/she said” lacked imagination, so I replaced every dialogue attribution with a verb. My characters growled, barked, and hissed like a pack of zoo animals, but never “said” a word. While verbs offer a lavish palette of vocal expression, overuse dilutes their power. “Said” functions like the word “the”, an essential and unobtrusive part of sentence mechanics. Readers don’t even notice it as they follow a conversation. Upon this invisible foundation, verbs stand out bold and clear when the speakers truly have reason to grumble, shout, whisper. Use attribution verbs as “seasoning” when the scene calls for more dramatic forms of expression.
Treat adverbs with even greater restraint. On occasion, it’s all right for a character to say something softly or slowly (“hold me closer, tiny dancer…” oops, got the wrong keyboard under my fingers for that one!). But adverbs, in attribution or anywhere else in writing, can indicate a weak verb choice. Instead of describing a character’s emotion through adverbs, pair dialogue with behavior and paint a vivid picture for the reader:
- “Sure,” he said cheerfully. / “Sure,” he said with a grin.
- “Sure,” he said angrily. / “Sure.” He slammed the door shut.
- “Sure,” he said nervously. / “Sure,” he said, fiddling with his cuffs and not meeting her eyes.
We’ll discuss handling of adverbs in more detail next week, when we discuss prose style.
In an age where we carry streaming video in our pockets, why does anyone still read novels? Perhaps it’s the opportunity to hear character’s thoughts. With a few exceptions, inner monologue is still unique to written fiction. It’s a terrific storytelling device, offering insight into motivations and opinions characters they might not share in dialogue. It can be an aside for humorous commentary, or highlight conflict between a character’s thoughts and actions. Employing it with success, however, can be a little tricky:
- Don’t overdo it. Include only a few lines at a time. If you find the story demands a lot of inner monologue, perhaps the novel would fare better with a first-person perspective.
- Don’t play “musical minds”! Reveal only one character’s thoughts per scene/chapter (in correlation with perspective).
- Don’t use inner monologue for forced exposition.
Dialogue can even help get your rough draft on paper. If you’re stuck on a scene, type up the essential exchanges like a script, with no supporting text, and see what unfolds. Often it reveals the heart of the scene, and makes it easier to fill in the rest. If the dialogue itself it giving you trouble, change the setting and see how it changes the conversation. You can even try changing the players involved. Just think of how a character’s confession of guilt would differ if delivered to his best friend, his sister, his lover, his local news anchor, his therapist, or his dog.
When you first write a scene, let the dialogue flow. Capture everything you hear the characters saying, without stifling them or cutting them short. Listen to their voices. Dialogue is like a rosebush: let it grow lush and full before pruning it to topiary perfection. At editing time, read the dialogue aloud. Taste the words and hear the cadence of speech. If it sounds good in your ears, you’re on your way to crafting dynamic dialogue!