Talking back: 5 dialogue do's
Follow these tips to keep your readers turning the pages
February 1, 2012
As promised, in this column, no more dialogue don’ts. Instead, we’ll go over some do’s: aspects of dialogue that you really should work on if you want your readers to hang on those words.
1. Use speech economically. That is, use only the words necessary to make your points, and then move on. Don’t bore the reader with unnecessary pleasantries (“Hello, how are you?”) that everyone says, words that don’t develop character, plot or theme. In fact, try to make each exchange, even small ones, have an arc of sorts. It should build to a climax and then fall:
“Hey, how’s it going, sonny?”
“I said, how’s it going, sonny boy?”
“Didn’t I tell you just yesterday never to address me that way?”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
2. In general, have your characters speak differently. This trick is sometimes hard to put into practice, especially if your people are always some refraction of you. But keep your ears open at the local supermarket or even at your own dinner table, and see what happens. What do you hear? Men are often more direct or ruder than women:
“You gonna eat that?”
“No, I’ve finished, thank you.”
The old may pause more than the young:
“ ’Smatter, Grandpa?”
“Oh—I don’t know. Um, nothing, I guess.”
A Jamaican man’s English isn’t the same as that of his friend from Ohio (this one I leave to you as homework).
These effects can be fun to rig up, or hard—or both—but do what you can to get them right. How does a drunk character speak? A lisper? One caution: Avoid overuse of dialect and spelled-as-it-looks speech, also known as eye dialect. “He’s probly outside,” avoiding the extra syllable in “probably,” is OK, but maybe not “Hiss pry ousside”—too much work for the reader with too little payoff.
Which brings us to the next point:
3. If you must have a long stretch of dialogue or monologue, break it up with actions. A sip of coffee, crossing the room, or just scratching your nose. Why? Because talking heads are both boring and not too realistic. When people converse, unless they’ve been straitjacketed, they move, or at least fidget.
4. Pay attention to psychology and nuance. For example, Ted isn’t really answering Ellen (his mind is on Cindy, across the room). Or Frank tends to repeat himself (he’s afraid no one’s listening). Or Lisa poses one rhetorical question after another (she’s used to living alone, and carries on both sides of the exchange).
So feel free to alternate the speech with thoughts or even authorial reflections:
“Hey, everybody!” Sarah gazed around the room and gave her trademark wave, but no one waved back. How come no one seemed to notice her after the divorce? “Hello?” One more try. She walked right over to Ron and his second wife, Whatshername. “Is anyone out there?”
Which leads us to the final tip:
5. Consider the significance of silence. Sometimes no response is exactly the answer required.
David Galef, the director of the
creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless
eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story
collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is available now.