Craft, For Writers

Dialogue: Doing Double Duty

One of the most powerful things dialogue can be used for in our manuscripts is revealing character. The words a person uses and the way she chooses to phrase them says a lot about her as a person. From just a few lines of dialogue we can learn a lot about the person we’re talking to.

friends-talkingIf you’re writing a character who often says things like “by jingo!” then, by jingo, he needs to think that way too. If he speaks in short clipped sentences, his narrative thoughts shouldn’t be long and lyrical. And, of course, the reverse is true, too.

Some of us are able to match dialogue to the character’s background quite well, but others miss the mark wildly. If you’re writing a character who is supposed to be highly educated and polished, make sure you personally have a broad enough vocabulary to create that character believably. There aren’t many things more jarring than being told that a character is a doctor, a scientist, a psychotherapist, or some other highly educated person, but when he opens his mouth, he makes glaring grammatical mistakes in his speech.

If a reader is asked to believe two things that are at odds with each other; e.g., this is a highly educated person who speaks poorly, she will almost always believe what you show her, not what you tell she is shown, not what she is told. If the dialogue is what she is shown, then that which you, the author, have told her is going to feel false. And when the reader suspects that you’ve lied to her, you lose her — not just for the one book she’s reading, but for future books, as well. You lose your credibility, and that’s just about the most precious commodity at your disposal.

Even little words can make or break the image you’re trying to create. Never, never have your professional character open his briefcase or look down at the desk at the papers there. Do the research so that you know exactly what those papers are. A doctor might look at charts or medical records, an attorney at a complaint, a brief, a deposition, and so on. But letting a character refer to the documents of his trade as “papers” only reveals that you haven’t done your research.

Read the following piece of dialogue and then think for a minute about what it tells you about the character.

“She left me. Two little slips, and she walked out the door. Left me on my own, the bitch. Said she’d had enough. Wants somebody who’ll cherish her–whatever the hell that means.”

people-i-do-not-knowWhat do you know about the speaker? The character is probably male. He cheats on his wife or significant other. He’s fairly obnoxious. Has very little respect for women in general, and certainly isn’t a romantic. In fact, from this one tiny piece of dialogue, we come away with some very strong idea about his life views, his opinions about women and fidelity, and we’d probably be right if asked to predict whether or not he’s a religious person. This is the power of dialogue.

How about this person:

“Because you wouldn’t do that. I know you wouldn’t. We’ve been together too long. Through too much. I don’t care what she says, George. You wouldn’t have betrayed me.”

Who is this speaker? My bet is that it’s a female. She’s optimistic — or at least pathetically hopeful. She’s trusting. Maybe a little too trusting. Whether or not that optimism and trust is justified remains to be learned. As a reader, your opinion of her will be clouded by your own life experiences. If you’ve ever been taken advantage of by a man and have kicked yourself ever since for trusting so blindly, you may see something different than the woman who has been happily married to the same man for thirty-five years. Remember that the same is true of your readers.

Dialogue is a powerful tool, but it must be combined with narrative to provide the right direction for your readers. It can also be used to create a sense of place, although it can be a pretty clumsy way to create a sense of place if you’re not careful. We really don’t want to read:

“Ooooh, cobwebs. Icky. And broken glass in the windows.”

“Gosh, yes, Mary. And be careful of that broken board over by the sagging doorway.”

But we might want to read dialogue that does more than provide an inventory:

“The dirt, the cobwebs, the broken glass…” She shook the web from her fingers and grimaced. “I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” Kindness filled his voice. “That you will see again? Believe me, Fran, you don’t want to see this place.”

Dialogue can help to create a sense of time.

“The dirt, the cobwebs, the broken glass…” She shook the web from her fingers and grimaced. “I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” His voice was kind. “That you will see again? Believe me, Fran, you don’t want to see this place. Besides, it’s pitch black in here since the sun went down. We’re on equal footing now.”

Check every sentence you write, every paragraph, every piece of dialogue to see how many different things you can accomplish with one set of words.

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After you finish each scene, take a look at the dialogue and figure out for yourself what you’ve accomplished with it. Have you used it to accomplish at least two of the following?:

  • provide information
  • establish conflict
  • establish character
  • establish setting
  • establish the story’s or scene’s time-frame

As a general rule, the more things you can accomplish at once with the dialogue, the more powerful it is.

photo credit: Checklist Chalkboard via photopin (license)



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