Part 3 - Dance Like No One's Watching
Silence is a powerful tool in dialogue. It can whisper comfort and peace, shout anger and discord, or state a fact more clearly than any words ever could. In the words of an old Keith Whitley song: “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”
Of course, not everything can be said with silence. But some things are communicated with incredible impact by having a character say nothing.
Noah reached across the table and took her hand.
“Karen, I—” He cleared his throat and squeezed the hand he held. “I’ve fallen in love with you.”
Her eyes widened. For the barest flash of a second, Keith remembered the deer he’d missed by about six inches on the road last night.
Then her hand slid from his, and she stared out the window, apparently enthralled by the darkness that covered the bay.
Uh-oh. Something’s not right, right? Either Karen doesn’t return Keith’s affection, or something is preventing her from saying so.
Employ this tool with care. It can be a valuable part of your writer’s arsenal. But, as with any writing technique, overuse lessens the effect, and can become downright annoying.
If you’ve been writing for more than two days, you know dumping information on your reader is a no-no.
Unfortunately, many writers seem to think if information is provided within a conversation, that makes it fine and dandy. Think again.
Yes, dialogue is a great way to let readers know things they need to know about a character’s history, psychological condition, etc., without pages of back story. But even packaged in dialogue and tied in neat little quotation marks, no one wants an entire life’s history shoved down their throat in a single conversation. Spread it out. Drop nuggets of information, and do it in such a way that the reader hardly realizes she’s been fed a slice of back story pie.
Still holding hands, they approached the antique store. With a chuckle, Tina used her free hand to point at the window, where an old Silver Streak bicycle held prominent place in the eclectic display.
“Look at that old bike, Ross.” She shook her head. “At one time, some kid probably thought he’d been handed the keys to the kingdom when he got that thing on Christmas morning. Can you even imagine?”
Ross stared at the red bike. He didn’t have to imagine. But it hadn’t been Christmas. His old man had put in a lot of work to make it look sharp—it was far from new, even on Ross’s twelfth birthday. But he hadn’t cared. That Silver Streak bicycle was his pride and joy—and ultimately, the thing that destroyed his life forever.
“Ross!” Karen tugged at her hand, finally freeing it from his unwitting clutch-hold. Her shocked gaze captured his. “What’s wrong with you? You were hurting me!”
The reader is given a glimpse into Ross’s past, but not a whole shovelful of it—just a bare glimpse. The reader doesn’t feel as if she’s been taken on a long, boring stroll through history, but her interest is now definitely piqued. Ross’s past holds the promise of some interesting reading further in the book, and you can bet she’s going to keep reading until she unearths that mystery.
Keep it casual:
Most of us do not use a lot formality in our everyday conversation—unless the situation calls for formality: a speech, a job interview, etc. Outside those situations, we don’t speak in a stiff, stilted manner. Neither should our characters, unless that happens to be a (rather unusual) characteristic of that person’s speech.
For instance, when inviting a guest to make herself at home, which of the following more closely represents realistic conversation?
"I desire to ensure you are absolutely comfortable during the time you are staying in my home."
"Please make yourself at home. I want you to be comfortable here."
Clearly, the second choice is closer to what most of us would actually say…and that’s how our character’s should speak, as well.
Use contractions. Most conversations are riddled with them, and we don’t even notice. But we do notice when someone doesn’t use them, because their speech sounds stilted. (For instance, a foreigner might speak English very precisely, and omit contractions. If you have a character to whom English is a second language, then by all means, kill the contractions. That speech pattern will become an easy identifier for that character any time he/she speaks.)
Try reading your dialogue out loud. Actually hearing dialogue can shine a light on anything corny or unrealistic that managed to find its way in there. Better yet, enlist the aid of an honest friend to read the dialogue with you—like a script. You take a role, your friend takes another. You’ll besurprised how many speech snafus the two of you will uncover, and the result will be a better, more believable conversation for your readers’ enjoyment.
Read. And read some more.
As writers, we are often told to read. We learn by reading. If we don’t read, we can’t write. In the words of Stephen King, “You cannot hope to sweep someone away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
Read with a deliberate mind toward dialogue. What works in the books you most enjoy? What made conversations sparkle and dance? What didn’t work…annoyed you, made you close the book and not open it again? Learn from those things—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Everything you learn is another step you can apply to your own dancing dialogue…another step away from Wallflower-dom and into the action on the floor.
Dance like no one’s watching…but, as a writer, dance so that everyone will!
Next week: The final dance.
Dialogue: Make it dance like no one’s watching, and everyone will. @DeliaLatham http://tinyurl.com/pt2z5kv
Dancing Dialogue, Part III, on Write Right! @DeliaLatham http://tinyurl.com/pt2z5kv