(Following is the first installment of a series on dialogue. Follow-ups comin'atcha each Thursday for the next (?) weeks. Playing this one by ear.)
Writing dialogue is an acquired skill for most of us. Few writers get it right the first time, but the ones who succeed at becoming published and actually selling books keep at it until they do.
The simple truth is, dialogue in fiction cannot be dull, dry and deadly boring. Think of a wallflower—present, but unessential to the activity, and mostly overlooked.
No, no, no. No. Dialogue has to sparkle and shine and dance. It must be the pizzazz that makes the party perfect!
Conversation between a book’s characters (yes, dialogue) drives the emotion, action and conflict. If it isn’t crisp…if it isn’t sharp…if it doesn’t capture a reader’s entire attention—make her laugh or cry, shock her or set her on edge, arouse his sympathy or make him want to punch a hole in the wall—then it isn’t done right.
It isn’t dancing.
Come along. Let’s learn the melody that will make our dialogue dance a lively two-step.
Dance Step #1:
Know what it is. Simply stated, dialogue is a verbal exchange between two or more characters. (Only one person talking equals monologue, and isn’t usually well-received—in real life or in fiction.)
Dance Step #2:
Know what it does for a storyline.
Dialogue serves more than on purpose in fiction, each of them equally important. Let’s step them off, one at a time.
1. Advances plot and scene. Essential information can be provided in an interesting manner through dialogue. It's how readers learn things they need to know about the story without being fed a dump of information that leaves them yawning.
On a more piecemeal level, dialogue reveals the purpose of a scene—and every scene must have one. If it doesn’t, toss it and save your characters a few words. But when there is a need for a scene, there is almost always a need for dialogue too.
2. Reveals character. What kind of people are your characters? Dialogue done well reveals who they are at heart. Is she spoiled by a lifetime of silver spoons? Maybe he’s street smart—because he had to be to survive. Dialogue can bring to light a character’s hopes and dreams, doubts and fears, foibles and follies, and do so without blasting the reader with boring backstory. Everything can be communicated to your very smart readers simply by what and how a character speaks.
3. Shows geographical and environmental detail. Each person is a culmination of his or her life events, home environment and geographical location. That’s what gives each of us a unique personality that is essentially who we are. Cowpokes from Texas are likely to have a slow, southern drawl, and say “ma’am” a lot. Socialites from Manhattan may be fashion conscious and/or a bit snooty. Someone raised in a strict religious home, even if they no longer consciously adhere to that religion’s tenets, will reveal that background in certain things they say, or the way they say them. Does she unconsciously quote scripture, or refer to Bible characters? Bingo. That tells your reader something they need to know.
4. Creates, increases, or reveals conflict. Words are powerful. They can kill, or they can bring life. The casual revelation of a secret can start a feud, break up a marriage, dash a plan, destroy a dream. Kind words have been known to talk a prospective suicide off a ledge. The right word at the right time can make miracles happen—sometimes even in real life. :) In fiction, they’re the oil that keeps the story moving and makes things happen—good things and bad. Dialogue—the words the characters speak—is the melody that makes the music that inspires the dance.
5. Balances story elements. Action and description are both necessary to a good tale, but long passages of either can be boring and send a reader out shopping for a new book. Dialogue breaks up those necessary chunks of doldrum-ite, turning them into fascinating little verbal fireworks.
Could we come up with more purposes for dialogue? Sure, but these are enough to prove the necessity of learning how to use it well.
(Next week we'll cover some do's and don'ts to improve your dance steps.)