Dialogue is action and it should be specific and relevant to the action of the scene. Dialogue describes things; it precipitates crises and revelation. It breaks the monotony of lengthy narrative. The reader is given a full, emotional illustration with dialogue. An important note is that dialogue should add to the reader’s present knowledge.
Moving the Story Forward
Dialogue should move the story forward. To do this, it must convey important information. It may foreshadow coming events; it can be used to sum up a situation. It can be useful in tying up loose ends, but the author should be careful not to save all of his information for a summary dialogue between characters or his reader may feel cheated. Many early mystery novelists such as Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan) and Agatha Christie (Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot) hid many details from the reader and related everything when everyone was gathered in a room at the end of the story and given all the answers. This does not give the reader the opportunity to solve the problem along with the protagonist.
Be aware that dialogue is not conversation, which tends to wander in various directions, never ending up where it started. In fiction, dialogue cannot wander—it must focus on one thought and one goal at a time. Dialogue can allow the reader to read as much as possible between the lines, in what is left out, and in the directions, actions, and gestures that accompany the dialogue. Good dialogue is spontaneous and does not wander through topics that are not important to the scene.
As you edit your work, reread your dialogue and cut what isn’t necessary. Make sure that the dialogue left is appropriate to the scene and supplies whatever information the reader needs to visualize the situation. Too much dialogue, or dialogue that does not advance the story, can confuse or bore the reader.
Dialogue is a strong tool for the author, relative to developing and revealing character; it crystallizes relationships. Dialogue develops character through what and how a character speaks—speech patterns, vernacular, slang/word usage, etc. Dialogue develops characters through one another by the way they interact. It outweighs narrative in developing various characters. To do this the author picks his characters’ words carefully. If he wants his character to be a bully, the words the character uses will be harsh, intimidating, threatening. If the author is developing an adult character who behaves like a child, the choice of words will be immature—not words expected of an adult.
In addition to developing individual characters, good dialogue will establish relationships among two or more characters. If the bully mentioned above intimidates another character, the reader will see that expressed through the exchange between the two characters. The same holds true if the bully meets his match in the character of a defender of those being bullied—effective dialogue will show, through the proper choice of words, how that relationship is established. It will also help establish the protagonist and antagonist.
In using dialogue to develop character(s), the author further moves the story and establishes the growth of the protagonist character. In addition, the protagonist is the character in the story who must grow as the story progresses, and the proper choice of words in dialogue will move this growth forward.
Dialogue plays an important role in establishing the setting. Setting should be transparent to the reader, not something she focuses a lot of attention on, and through the combined use of dialogue and descriptive narrative, the reader wraps herself up in her surroundings—the setting. As two characters talk about the dark sky or the impending storm, this discussion will set the scene and also establish both setting and character. Or a conversation from a telephone booth at an airport—how do people react to their setting? Using both narrative and dialogue to establish setting gives the author a chance to focus on the five senses as he develops a sense of place for the characters.
It should also be noted that both direct and internal dialogue can be used successfully to establish setting (see below for definitions).
Dialogue and Theme
A story’s theme may be obvious, or it may lurk within the depths of the story. But it is the author’s passion; it is the basis of his story, and he wants the reader to know that. Strong dialogue is a tool that the author can use to carry that theme to the surface, even if only for a moment, to ensure that the reader “gets” the story.
In many genre stories such as mystery or romance, the theme is usually obvious: crime doesn’t pay, or love will win in the end. Most readers do not need to have this theme force-fed to them. In more mainstream fiction or deeply literary fiction, the theme is not always so apparent and to have a character express it in dialougue—however subtly—strengthens a theme’s impact...
Dialogue builds suspense, plants clues, creates red herrings, and foreshadows events. It develops conflict. Warnings given through dialogue don’t require explanation, as they would in narrative. A character’s speech may be all that’s needed to build intrigue. Dialogue can foreshadow conflict down the road or drop clues to the solution of a problem.
Dialogue can establish or reverse a flashback. Flashbacks are not always welcome to readers and dialogue can help smooth the transition in both directions.
Achieving Good Dialogue
How does the author achieve good dialogue? As much as mothers may disavow this suggestion, one of the best ways is to eavesdrop on conversations in public. Listen to accents, speech impediments, speech patterns and tones. These also help with character development. Let the dialogue speak for itself—be succinct. Eliminate unnecessary, ordinary conversation; use frosting sparingly; leave out extraneous words, especially adverbs, like “he said, merrily,” or “she retorted indignantly.” Write dialogue as it is truly spoken. (A note about adverbs: Adverbs are, more often than not, crutches that support weak verbs, and as such should be eliminated. That is not to say that there is no place for these modifiers in dialogue. However, you should use them in moderation.)
Dialogue appears in fiction in three forms—direct dialogue, indirect dialogue, and internal dialogue. Each form plays an important role in the story with regard to pacing.
Direct Dialogue: Direct dialogue shares discussion between two or more people in a scene. Direct dialogue allows the reader to eavesdrop: to be part of the dialogue without actually saying anything. The reader experiences the dialogue firsthand, thus learning information as it currently appears in the story.
Direct dialogue generally has dialogue tags: he said, she said, he asked, and she answered. The dialogue tags can be the simple he/she, or can be the name of the character speaking.
In dialogue between two people, the dialogue tags may be used sporadically or may be “stripped” when no speech tags are used. This may be okay where only two people are talking, provided the dialogue does not get lengthy and confusing as to which character is speaking.
When conversations involve more than two people, it must be made very clear through dialogue tags who is talking in order to not confuse the reader. As with two-person dialogue, tags may be used sporadically if the content of the dialogue makes it clear who is speaking, but if the dialogue is lengthy, it is wise to toss in some tags to avoid confusion.
Example of Direct Dialogue (two people):
“Well, like, she’s the one who does all the work. He just stays here and she goes to the mainland to work. Man, does he have it soft,” Donnie said, shaking his head.
“I hear he’s a writer or somethin’,” Pete said.
“Yeah, some newspaper or magazine or somethin’ like that. Nothin’ permanent—just writes stuff that interests him. I wonder if he makes much money doin’ that?”
“I don’t know. My sister says she’s the one who makes all the money. He just lives off her.”
Since there are only two people in this scene, the last two lines of dialogue do not require tags because the first two lines have established who is talking in the scene. Now, having said that, it should be noted that if the author tosses in some dialogue “business” (see below) that might throw off who is saying what when, then the tags may need to be reinserted for clarity.
Example of direct dialogue (more than two people):
“We had a situation early this morning,” Sarah started.
“What do you mean a situation?” Martha Corey asked.
“We had some visitors at the house about 2:30. It was quite dark but I could see they were searching for something.”
“What were they looking for?” Samuel Wardwell asked.
“More important, did they take anything?” Mary Parker asked.
Wilmot Redd, tall, slender, the youngest of the group at 50, nodded her head in agreement. “Mary is right,” she said. “What did they take?”
In this example, several people are included in the discussion and it is important for the reader to know who is saying what. In the third line above, there is no tag because it is obvious that Martha is asking the question of Sarah, and this is Sarah’s answer to the question. The author should, however, be careful about eliminating dialogue tags in group discussions. A good way to determine if they are needed is to read the dialogue aloud and listen!
The verbs used for dialogue tags should be chosen carefully. The verbs said and answered are generally transparent and do not distract the reader. However, if dialogue is lengthy, the repetition of these verbs can cause them to lose their transparency. When stronger verbs than said are used, they may tend to place importance on how something is said rather than what is said. This is okay in moderation, provided, again, that it does NOT distract the reader. Using pronouns (he, she) in place of proper names generally allows an even flow of dialogue. However, gender can be tricky and if there are two characters of the same gender in a lengthy discussion, then the he said / he said / he said, may require the use of the character’s names.
A further note about dialogue tags is important here. Often an author will steer away from the standard “he said/she said” in an attempt to color his writing. This should be done with great care, and it is most important for the author to be sure that the words he chooses fit the character using them.
Example: John, an experienced Marine, leaned over the table in the interrogation room and stared down at the frightened prisoner. John slowly rolled up his sleeves and flexed his muscles. He moved his face to within three inches of the prisoner.
“I’m gonna make you wish you were never born,” he tittered.
Now…no self-respecting Marine is going to be in a situation like the one outlined above, and titter. As a matter of fact, no self-respecting Marine is going to titter…EVER! Tittering is something done by one’s elderly aunt in the convalescent home!
Indirect Dialogue: Indirect dialogue is a form of dialogue that condenses speech. It is useful in summarizing information and is most useful once the reader has already experienced direct dialogue from a scene being discussed. Indirect dialogue is very helpful in the first-person account of a story when the first person narrator needs to have a piece of information that she was not directly privy to. The author should use it when direct dialogue would be too lengthy or repetitive and would slow the pace of the story.
Examples of indirect dialogue:
• Mack explained to the police officer what happened when he entered the library and found the body.
• The teacher described to the class how to dissect a rat.
• John told me that Mary refused his marriage proposal.
One of the important things to recognize about indirect dialogue is that it is devoid of detail, so if the reader has not already been privy to that detail either through a previous scene with direct dialogue or through narrative, then indirect dialogue does not work because it leaves the reader in the dark. Its value, as stated above, is in its summarization of information the reader already knows.
Internal Dialogue: Internal dialogue is that which the subject character has with himself. It takes place totally in his head.
Example of internal dialogue:
A notice about Janine Tilghman’s coming-out party stood out like a sore thumb. Lindsey stared at it. Well, the society page is not going to write itself, so I guess I’d better start this one. Who still has coming-out parties, she wondered.
Obviously, internal dialogue occurs only in the mind of one person. It is what the subject character is thinking and only the writer knows it too. A dialogue tag may or may not be used—it is a style decision. It helps the reader to show internal dialogue in italics, so most style manuals recommend that. Quotation marks should not be used with internal dialogue - only direct dialogue!
Now, a word about dialogue business: This is action by a character that the author inserts directly into the line of dialogue. In the example above, the last line, where Wilmot Redd nods her head, is dialogue business. It is similar to direction a playwright will put into a play for an actor’s movement. In fiction dialogue, this business will provide some added detail as to what is happening with the various participants in the discussion.
Other Dialogue hints:
Duffer Dialogue is constructed of junk words that begin lines of speech but are unnecessary and can be implied through dialogue.
Example: Well, you know, uh. (Note: if your character would speak using lots of duffer words, such as, “ya know,” “like,” “so,” then use them to develop that character, but if they would not use these words in their normal patterns of speech, avoid them.)
Dialect can be disconcerting to the reader who may end up spending more time trying to figure out how the dialogue sounds and loses what’s being said. Dialect may be very important to character development (ethnicity, sexuality, geographic location, station in life) but should be handled carefully and with brevity.
Archaic language is most often used in historical novels. It may cause concern for the reader if a word’s meaning is unknown and not conveyed through the dialogue. The reader should not have to rush to the Internet to define a word in order to understand what is being said.
Foreign speech, like dialect, may present a problem for the reader. If the character uses a foreign phrase that is or may not be familiar to American readers then have a person who is familiar with the language read it for accuracy.
Dialogue Length: Sustaining reader interest with dialogue may be difficult if a speech runs more than three or four sentences. In that case, the dialogue must show, by some means, that it is important. This can be done by an introductory line of dialogue, followed by a line of narrative, then continuing the longer dialogue. Dialogue can also be interrupted with dialogue business or action.
Rules of Thumb:
• Over three sentences per character’s speech runs into danger. Monologues can be anathema to moving the story along. This is not to say they don’t have their place, just be aware that they can slow the story and stop the reader..
• If dialogue does run into a speech, break it up with interruptions by other speakers, by action, or thoughts, or convince the reader the speech is important.
• Always read dialogue aloud to see how it sounds.
• Profanity should be used judiciously. Too much is boring. Profanity can, however, be used effectively in dialogue to establish character.
• Direct dialogue should not be used by one character to tell another what he already knows. That will make dialogue long and tedious.
• An important point for the author to remember is that dialogue should be fun!