Dialogue – The Workhorse of the Story
By Gayle Bartos-Pool
Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel, short story, and screenplay. Even Silent Movies had dialogue. Dialogue performs several functions. It provides: Character Development; Plot Advancement, and Action or Movement.
In other words: It brings the story to life.
Dialogue Enhances (Describes) the Character – How a character speaks and acts says a lot more about him or her than just the words. Dialogue tells the place of birth, type of education, her temperament, his soul. Speech patterns denote character just as costumes do for an actor whether it’s a stammer or a dialect.
“Honey, somethin’s happened to yer livin’ room. Did ya’ll get another dawg?”
Dialogue Advances the Plot – and Provides Pacing – Good dialogue always adds something to the plot, whether it builds tension, relieves tension, imparts needed information to the other characters (and the reader), animates the story, thus moving it along; or even slows down the pace when you need a breather.
“Why’d you get out of the fund?”
“Frankly, I was scared. They played too rough.”
“They?” That got my attention. “Who’s they? Does Racine have a partner?”
Dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You are eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you. And dueling dialogue between opposing characters brings the reader right into the action. But note: as the argument gets more heated, the length of the sentences gets shorter.
“I never loved my wife!”
“Did you kill her?”
Dialogue gets you Up-Close and Personal – Provides Tone and Mood while it brings the reader into the story. – How the words are delivered sets the verbal stage on which the scene is set; a whisper denotes mood just like a rant.
I lowered my voice before asking her my next question. “Do you outrank him?”
“No, I sleep with him,” Trin whispered.
Remember: A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description. But note: Dialogue is the illusion of conversation.
In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters…intimately.
First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.
Archie Wright’s the name. Dishing dirt’s the game. My sandbox: Hollywood. The most glamorous and glitzy, vicious, and venomous playground in the world. If you come for a visit, bring your sunscreen and your shark repellant.
Make a character sound different from the other characters with him by adding: a dialect or a foreign accent or words to denote an education or lack thereof. Add rhythm to their speech to show how the person is thinking at the time: hesitation vs. rapid-fire. Word choice might show a character’s education level, but keep it consistent; a drugged out biker probably won’t quote Shakespeare, but a professor in prison might quote Hamlet.
Speech should: Move the plot along by telling us something about the character; convey information about the plot; add to the mood; change the POV to get another character’s side; and add to the reality of the piece. Just make sure somebody (a character or the reader) learns something new during any conversation. But if something is conspicuously held back, make sure it is found in the next chapter or at least by the end of the story.
If there is no purpose to the dialogue, rewrite it or dump it.
“Larry and I didn’t have children. We had two ‘vipers’ instead, just to be different. And to tell you the truth, if they didn’t kill their father, they hired someone to do it. But their funds are limited now. They’ll have to do the deed themselves.”
Language & Body Language
Simple gestures describe the characters more fully than words alone. Instead of: “Go ahead. Date my ex-wife!” he shouted. Try: “Go ahead. Date my ex-wife,” he said while slamming his fist into the wall.
Body language or Stage Business Helps Dialogue.
“I love you,” he said.
She blew smoke in his face. “How nice.”
Instead of a constant stream of he said/she said, use stage directions to show how someone is reacting while talking.
“I’m crazy about you, too,” she said, looking at her watch.
Internal monologue can shake things up.
I couldn’t believe they found Brad’s body. I thought I buried him deeper.
Things to Avoid:
Expository dialogue: “As you know, Fred…”
Pleasantries: “Hello. Nice weather we’re having.”
Long speeches – Unless you’re Shakespeare; less is always more in dialogue.
Adverbial action tags like: “I loathe you,” she said fiercely. –can be replaced with action: “I loathe you,” she said, grinding her cigarette into the back of his hand. “Have a nice day.” Instead of: he said gravely. Try: with his head bowed he said…
Sometimes what the character doesn’tsay is important: “I knew you wouldn’t care if I left you,” he said. She bit her lip.
Keep you, the writer, out of the piece. Don’t let your thoughts get tangled with those of your characters.
Write a biography of your main characters, whether it’s a paragraph or a page, describe who they are, where they came from, their background. Where a character was “born,” went to school, and his neighborhood will dictate his speech pattern, whether it’s a Southern drawl, a French accent, or a gangsta rapper from the ‘hood.’
If you are having difficulty, start with a “stock character” straight from central casting. If you want a villain, pick a character from some old movie, like Edward G. Robinson, and than mold him into your own creation. You can always find a picture in a magazine that fits the type of person you want in a particular role. Cut the picture out and devise a background for him or her.
If you know your characters, you can find their individual voice, even if the character isn’t human. Dogs, cats and birds have found their way into great stories.
After you have written your scene, read it aloud or have someone else read it to you, or use one of the many software programs that reads your work back to you. It will make a huge difference. You will hear things you didn’t know you wrote (both good and bad) and you will pick up the redundancies and misused words. And you just might find out how good you are at writing dialogue.
Let your dialogue work for you. It has a lot to say.
14 thoughts on “Dialogue – The Workhorse of the Story By Gayle Bartos-Pool”
Great tips on Dialogue, Gayle, especially how good dialogue can advance your story and develop your characters. The tip about “listening” is so true, what I see, what I read, and what I hear have often been strikingly different! Funny how our “editing minds” work.
Gayle, you are a born teacher. You make everything so clear! Thank you.
Great post, Gayle. So many writers cite dialog as the hardest part to get right. Your tips will help.
Mad, I love it when I read dialogue that rings true and tells me something about the character or the story. Being an observer really helps a writer.
Jack, This is part of the Anatomy of a Short Story course that I teach. And I do love dialogue.
One of the best ways to learn how to write good dialogue is to watch an old movie. They didn't have to resort to explosions or dropping the “F” bomb to tell their story. In fact, they actually TOLD a story… with dialogue.
Your post about using dialog to tell a story is right on the mark. I'll try to remember your advice – – stop and listen to my characters – – next time I hurry along dialog to get my point across.
Tell me, Gayle, did you draw those horses? They are amazing.
This is a very good post. Thank you, Gayle. I also try to weave my theme into my dialogue when possible without overdoing it. One of my favorite writers, Kate Braverman once said at a workshop, “Dialogue is what people don't say.” Love that quote and this post. Paul
Bookmarking this! So timely! I am trying to use dialogue for the first time ever and not sure I am doing it correctly. Thank you!
Karen, I actually took acting lessons years ago just to learn about dialogue. Whether it's the words or the actions the characters use, it all enhances a story. I hope this helps in your writing. All the best.
Braverman was right. Writers too often say the same thing three times. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” saith Shakespeare. He was pretty good, too.
Alice, I didn't draw the horses. I have a terrific Clip Art collection. As for listening to my characters, most of the time I just take dictation and let them to the rest.
Great post, GB, from a writer who clearly knows what she's talking (no pun intended) about. And you used one of my all-time favorite first lines (you know the one I mean.) I really enjoy writing dialog, and your post was a great tutorial on how to do it right. As always, I learned something from you.
One of the highest compliments I ever received was from a writing teacher years ago, in regard to a short story I'd written entirely in dialog between three women “frenemies.” He scribbled on the page, “You have a gift for real (awful) talk.” I treasure that note!
Excellent post, and thank you! Dialogue can often make or break a story. Writing dialogue can be fun, but it can also be challenging.