Welcome back to the next round of our blog post series on the craft of writing. Today, my guest is fellow author Zrinka Jelic. She’s writing for Black Opal Books, too, and her romances published are The Treasured Chest and Bonded by Crimson. Read on and find out what she can tell you about dialogue in novels.
Thanks for coming, Zrinka.
Thanks for the invitation! 🙂
A year ago or so, I’ve taken an excellent workshop on dialogue, presented by Christine Fairchild. It would be impossible to sum up all her teaching on dialogue alone in one blog. So for more information about her workshop(s) and when and where she’d be teaching next visit her blog
Here are just some of her pointers on dialogue.
Dialogue can be external (every time your character opens his mouth) or internal (when your character opens his mind). But each time the reader should learn something about your character or the character with whom they are interacting.
No matter the genre you’re writing in, or your story, or type of your characters, the rule #1 is: dialogue must progress the plot, reveal or transform the characters, deepen conflicts, or build suspense. No exceptions.
Action and dialogue are the two strongest forms of revealing a character. In the screenwriting world there is a saying: action is dialogue.
The two serves the author, since this mantra typically ensures the author will assess the quality of the dialogue based on whether it creates movement and/or change.
How characters speak, either to themselves or to one another, should reveal who they are.
Here are a few dialogue DOs and DON’Ts.
– Make it clear who is speaking by attaching dialogue to the character’s action. But don’t overdue this either. Again, moderation and variation of pattern is best to maintain reader interest.
– Sprinkle a few variations in the manuscript when they are the best and/or the only way to show specific behavior, such as “he whispered” or “she growled” or “he mumbled.” When it naturally matches the action or plot events, then it will blend in better.
– Use verbs and nouns instead, such as “she said, her face blushing.”
– Use strong words, or striking sentences, or clipped phrasing to show the speaker is angry or upset. Better to create the sense of intensity through choice words, and avoid empty punctuation.
– Shoot for statements that make the speaker look stronger. Questions make speakers look weak, so they should be limited in hero/heroine dialogue. Statements can usually convey the same information in a more interesting manner, such as “Tell me you’re okay now” or “I know he’s not here to help us, so why he’s here is my question.”
– Use subtext or code-speak between two characters to communicate the same feelings. For example, Rick in “Casablanca” said “Here’s looking at you, kid” to say “I love you” and Rhett in “Gone with the Wind” said “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to say “I don’t love you anymore.” The point is, get creative and you will enrich the story and captivate the reader.
– Sprinkle information and back-story through casual comments and natural exchanges, such as arguments and banter. One or two at a time is plenty. Too much, and the reader will suspect the author is forcing the issue.
– Let characters say unique, funny, sarcastic, mean, or otherwise interesting things, even in common situations. Readers like to feel like they can’t expect what the character is going to say. Or take the common phrase and make it more interesting. This from Law & Order when the detective says to the suspect’s face, “I’ll get you,” and the suspect responds, “Good luck on your hamster wheel.”
– Use a lot of dialogue tags, such as “he/she said” or “he explained” or “she asked.” They are not as invisible when used en masse. Use them sparingly
– Use alternate dialogue tags too much, such as “he muttered” or “she prattled” or “he eviscerated.” The more unique the tag, unfortunately, the more attention it calls to itself. You don’t want to reader stumbling over something that should be invisible. These break the reader out of the story.
– Attach adverbs to dialogue tags, such as “he said wistfully” or “she asked regretfully.” This is a sure sign to agents and editors that the author is an amateur. Use action to show these emotions instead.
– Exclaim all the time. Exclamation points are too loud to use often. They tell, not show action. And, frankly, they don’t tell much. There are just punctuation, not character-revealing moments.
– Ask questions so often, such as “Are you okay now?” or “Why is he here, if he’s not going to help us?” Questions bring pacing to a halt. The reader’s mind will momentarily switch gears to assess and answer the question before moving forward. The more questions, the harder it is for the reader to move forward with the text. Questions are not action. They are stop signs.
– Say “I love you” or “I hate you” or “I want you” or “I forgive you” because these sentences have been said so often they’ve become meaningless. Thus, when they appear, the emotions behind them are somewhat diminished. Unless the statement is so unlike the hero/heroine (such as the emotionally shut-down father in “On Golden Pond” or a hard-boiled cop), or the villain is using them in a creepy way, then avoid them.
– Throw information dumps or too much back-story on the reader through spoken dialogue so they sound like professorial speeches. For example: “as you know, Bob…” or “Let me tell you about the time…” or “One day…” Readers have seen this a million times and they know it’s just a thinly disguised information dump.
– Let characters speak in boring, everyday phrases or chit chat, such as “How are you” or “So nice to see you” or “How’s the family these days.” Readers pick up your story to be entertained, not to hear useless prattle available on any street corner. Hero/heroines and villains should be especially more interesting and unique in their speech.
And the list goes on and on, but you get the picture.