Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Bringing your characters alive through dialogue

Dialogue tags. Hints. Tips. Gripes.

When I started out on this writing adventure I was scared to write dialogue.  The first draft of Death’s Golden Whisper contained almost no dialogue, something I knew had to change the  minute I finished the draft.  During subsequent revisions, I gradually added more and more dialogue until I became fully at ease with it. Now I almost prefer writing dialogue, because I hate to say it, I find it easier than description or internal monologue. 

That said, I find novels that are written almost entirely in dialogue lack the depth that novels with a mix of dialogue, descriptive and action narrative and internal monologue bring to a story.  They are better able to engage the reader by providing a better sense of place and action and a deeper insight into what makes the characters tick. So I prefer to have a mix of all three. The mix will vary depending on the kind of story I am writing and where I want to place the emphasis.

Dialogue is key to bringing the characters alive in the mind of the reader, who becomes a silent listener to the conversation. The reader should be able to differentiate characters by the way they speak, the words they use, their intonation and any other distinguishing characteristics. When there is little differentiation between characters’ dialogues, the reader losses interest and gets confused if attribution is kept to a minimum. 

I liken writing dialogue to acting. I become that character when I am writing their dialogue. Without consciously focussing on it, I find the different styles of speaking come through.  One character may be a person of few words, while another becomes a motor mouth.  Another character may like to show off his education by sprinkling multi-syllable words into his conversation, while another likes to shock with lots of four-letter words.  It usually doesn’t take much, just enough for a reader to imagine it is so-an-so speaking whenever they read his or her dialogue.

To avoid confusion, attribution is crucial in ensuring the reader knows who is speaking. This can be done simply by “Person X said, Person Y said.” before or after the dialogue. When there is a short exchange between two people, the ‘said’ is often dropped. Some writers, though, pride themselves in never using ‘said’ or any other tag. But I find as a reader it can get too confusing, such that I find myself becoming disengaged from the story as I try to figure out who is speaking. 

Often to convey a character’s state of mind, tags other than ‘said’ are used, such as hissed, yelled, boasted, spat out, whined, to name a few.  But for the most part ‘said’ is probably the best because it fades into the background. Interestingly, whenever I do a reading of my work, I often skip the tags and let my intonation and style of speaking be the identifier for the character.

Dialogue should always have a purpose and that purpose is to provide information to the reader to move the story forward.  Idle chit-chat is never included unless it is helping move the story forward. 
Dialogue is also an effective way of conveying information that might otherwise be boring if writing in narrative fashion.  What I call a core dump. In my Meg Harris series, I will often use a conversation between two people to convey information about the indigenous people I am writing about. TV crime shows use this technique to pass on information about the case they are working on. They will often have several characters add different snippets rather than having one character providing all the information.

I tend to like my dialogue short and succinct with the emphasis on the words being spoken. Occasionally I will add an internal monologue at the end of the dialogue of a given character to give the reader a sense of what the character is thinking or feeling. It can be an effective technique in helping to bring the character closer to the reader. But I find if done too much it can be distracting and slows down the back and forth movement of a conversation considerably.

And I think that’s it for me on dialogue.  Check out the postings of my confr√®res for more advice.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Agree, dialogue seems easier once we understand how to do it. I think I have used something other than "said" fewer than a dozen times in 5 books. But whisper and shout seem to me to be useful now and again when either action is unexpected and out of character for the scene.