Two: The Importance of Dialogue


Are you looking for source material on dialogue? If so, check out this booklist: “Dialogue Made Easy.” Each book offers free samples.

Chapter Two of Gunrunner Moon consists largely of dialogue. We’ve kicked off the story, things are happening, and our characters are talking about them.

If a story comes alive through its characters, its characters come alive through their dialogue. Ten words of well-written dialogue can say more about who a person is than any amount of physical description. That’s why I maintain a good writer should also be a good listener. Studying how real people converse in real situations can help you make imaginary people converse convincingly in imaginary situations.

Here are some tips on writing good dialogue.

1) Begin by asking: why should my characters say anything at all? 

A character should only speak when there’s a compelling reason. And then what he says should sound like natural speech, except with the irrelevant bits taken out and the parts that move the story along left in. Remember the “need to know” as you write your characters’ conversations.

Re-read this dialogue from Chapter Two of Gunrunner Moon:

Myers nodded. “That’s what I heard. You oughtta be proud of yourself, son,” he told Matt.

Mom tousled Matt’s hair. “Matt’s the best lifeguard at the YMCA back home. Best one in the world.”

Matt blushed. “Any, uh…word on what happened?”

Myers peered at Matt for a moment before nodding in a satisfied way. “No maydays. Er, that’s a distress call.”

“From m’aidez,” said Stephanie. “It’s French. Have you looked up Mockingbird in the Coast Guard registry yet?”

Mom glanced at her feet and smiled.

Why do these characters feel compelled to speak?  First, Matt is modest, so he wants to change the subject to something beside himself. Myers senses Matt’s embarrassment, and since he’s a nice guy he plays along by explaining what a “mayday” is. And Stephanie, who hates being talked down to, sasses Myers for doing it and goes on to show off how much she knows. Mom hears that and smiles — she knows exactly what’s going through Stephanie’s mind.

Myers will be a key figure in the story later, so here I give him a reason to like Matt (and by extension, the entire family.)  Stephanie isn’t yet fully developed as a character, and this byplay gives more insight into who she is. And Mom’s obviously proud of her kids. I also give the attentive reader a clue about Wagner and Mockingbird: nobody called for help during the storm.

Dialogue, like any other language in a story, should be used to build the story itself. Note how quickly we build the mystery of Mockingbird in the following dialogue:

 “So whose boat is it? Is she, I mean?” asked Stephanie.

“Captain Sawyer Wilcox.”

“And is he all right?” Matt asked.

“No, no…he passed away, I’m sorry to say. In an explosion.”

Matt squinted. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, sir,” said Myers. “During the Civil War.”

“I don’t get it,” Stephanie said. “That was, like, a hundred and fifty years ago. What has that got to do with Wagner?”

“Who’s this, Chief?” a woman interrupted from behind them.

In eight lines of dialogue we’ve gone from one mystery to four. Where’s Wagner?  Who’s Captain Wilcox and how was he killed?  Is Wilcox’s death somehow related to Wagner’s disappearance?  And who is this woman who’s just interrupted?

2) Give your characters natural voices.

Towards the end of the chapter Stephanie has trouble putting a good idea into words. Everyone’s like that. People stutter and stammer and say “uh” and “um” all the time. You can use verbal tics to make your characters seem more realistic, but don’t overuse them. Don’t make your characters sound like idiots…unless you want to them to BE idiots, of course.

3) Think about what goes unsaid and use it to your advantage.

As with writers and movie directors, what a character doesn’t say can be more important than what he does say. Re-read this dialogue:

When she finished, Mom nodded slowly. “That’s excellent thinking, Steph.”

Matt rubbed his cheek. “It is, but I’m sure the Coast Guard—”

“Matt,” Mom interrupted despite the scolding she’d just given Stephanie for doing that very same thing, “we should be able to find weather information online, don’t you think?”

Matt opened his mouth to say something. He closed it. Then he opened it again. “Right. I’m sure we can.”

Matt’s about to let the air out of Stephanie’s balloon by telling her the Coast Guard has probably already had that idea. Mom, though, realizes that developing the idea will be a good learning opportunity for Stephanie even if the Coast Guard doesn’t find it useful. Matt is a little slow on the uptake, but he gets it. He realizes that Mom has already won the argument before she even makes it, so he figures he might as well play along.

That’s a whole conversation that doesn’t require any words at all. I imply it when I show Matt opening and closing his mouth. And that’s a very powerful writing technique: if you can imply something, you don’t have to say it, which frees up space you can use to say other things.

4) Avoid having your characters re-hash the plot with each other.

In general you only need to reveal something to the reader one time. Imagine how dull the story of Matt rescuing Becca would become if we had to listen to Matt tell it to Mom, listen to Mom repeat it to Myers, hear Myers tell it to other Guardsmen, and watch Stephanie blog about it. Then Becca would want to come around telling her version to everyone — but all the readers would be asleep by then.

I’ll say this over and over in this guide: every word in a story should help to move the story along. That includes dialogue. So you should only show the characters discussing the plot if their discussion keeps things rolling. For instance, they could use their knowledge of what’s already happened to come to a new conclusion that the reader probably hasn’t thought of yet. (If you want to see that in action, read the scene in Chapter Six where Matt and Stephanie are eating ravioli and talking about Wagner.)

5) Remember that people exaggerate, tell half-truths, and lie to others AND to themselves.

This is especially important in mystery novels. If everyone told the truth all the time, we wouldn’t need young amateur detectives like Matt and Stephanie. And how many times have you watched a movie only to find out that the hero was the villain all along?

6) Use dialogue attribution carefully.

Dialogue attribution is the fine art of indicating who said what. As a general rule you should only attribute dialogue when failing to do so might cause confusion. And even then you should vary how you do it. Look at this passage again:

“I’ve got three crews looking for Wagner right now,” he said seriously. “If he’s out there my boys’ll find him. Hope he’s in as good a shape as Mockingbird is. They built ‘em solid back then, but that squall got nasty further out.”

“It was nasty here,” said Mom.

Myers nodded. “That’s what I heard. You oughtta be proud of yourself, son,” he told Matt.

Mom tousled Matt’s hair. “Matt’s the best lifeguard at the YMCA back home. Best one in the world.”

Matt blushed. “Any, uh…word on what happened?”

Myers peered at Matt for a moment before nodding in a satisfied way. “No maydays. Er, that’s a distress call.”

“From m’aidez,” said Stephanie. “It’s French. Have you looked up Mockingbird in the Coast Guard registry yet?”

Mom glanced at her feet and smiled.

Now Myers peered at Stephanie. “The registry, eh? What makes you think we need to?”

Now: what if I rewrote that conversation as follows?

“I’ve got three crews looking for Wagner right now,” said Myers. “If he’s out there my boys’ll find him. Hope he’s in as good a shape as Mockingbird is. They built ‘em solid back then, but that squall got nasty further out.”

“It was nasty here,” said Mom.

“That’s what I heard. You oughtta be proud of yourself, son,” said Myers.

“Matt’s the best lifeguard at the YMCA back home. Best one in the world,” said Mom.

“Any, uh…word on what happened?” said Matt.

“No maydays. Er, that’s a distress call,” said Myers.

“From m’aidez. It’s French. Have you looked up Mockingbird in the Coast Guard registry yet?” said Stephanie.

Mom said nothing.

“The registry, eh? What makes you think we need to?” said Myers.

Do you see how slow and artificial the second version sounds?  Sure, there’s dialogue attribution on every line…but it’s terribly repetitive. Also, there’s no body language at all. Body language is a gigundously important element of communication, and it’s very common to use it as dialogue attribution. When I write that Matt blushes, I’m calling your attention to him so he can have his turn to speak.

People communicate nonverbally all the time: they blink, shrug their shoulders, shuffle their feet, smile, laugh out loud, frown, clench their fists, smack themselves in the forehead…

Also, avoid reaching for the thesaurus when you’re working on dialogue attribution. You want let the characters speak for themselves instead. Compare these two snippets of dialogue:

1) “Rapunzel, please close the door,” Prince Charming shouted heatedly.

2) “Rapunzel, close that dad-blasted door right this instant!” Prince Charming shouted.

In the first we use the dialogue attribution to show that Prince Charming is “hot”, but is there really any heat?  No, not a bit. The second snippet does a much better job showing his anger. The lesson is to put the action in the quotation. In other words: show it instead of telling it. (More on that idea in the next lesson.)

7) Read your dialogue out loud after you’ve written it.

If your dialogue sounds like the sort of natural conversation you’d overhear at the mall, you’re probably on target. On the other hand, if it sounds stilted or forced, or it uses words that aren’t in common speech, you probably want to rewrite it.

Exercises

1) Writing dialogue from real life

-From your phone or web browser take an actual text message conversation or online chat you recently participated in and convert it to spoken dialogue across the dinner table.

-Alternative: if you don’t text or chat online, recall to the best of your ability a recent dinner conversation and write that as spoken dialogue.

2) Writing imaginary dialogue

-Rapunzel is fed up with being bossed around by Prince Charming. Imagine her telling him to get up off his throne and close the dad-blasted door himself. And while he’s at it, he can wash the dishes, vacuum the drapes, clean the litterbox, fold his royal robes, and so on. Prince Charming says he’d rather move back in with his mother, the Queen. Rapunzel begs him to. Now write the scene.

3) Non-verbal communication

-In Lesson One you wrote a simple three-act drama. Choose two characters from Act One and write a scene where the first is giving the second some bad news. The second character is too shocked to speak, but shows his/her feelings through body language. Focus on that body language as you write.

-Write a scene where those same two characters are trying NOT to talk about something. There’s an elephant in the room but neither of them wants to bring it up.

Go on to Lesson Three: Show, Don’t Tell.