- January 14th, 2011
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Stories are about characters, and aside from a few exceptions, characters talk. Whether they are narrating their tale directly to you the reader, or are having conversations with other characters, they dialogue. Dialogue plays a very important role in writing. Not only does it go a long way in plot development via characters verbally expressing significant quantities of pertinent information, dialogue also enhances a scene. It gives rich texture to character driven stories, or can provide clever filler material to action driven stories. It should always be pertinent, further the story, be entertaining and flow seamlessly with the action around it.
In Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, it’s the quaint Frontier Era manner used in the lively dialogue between the main characters that leaps off the page, not so much the action. The same is true of the John Wayne movie based on the novel. John Wayne rarely shined as an actor. He usually played the same character with virtually the same lines. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Duke, and he can act, but few of his movies provided him with a great script that brought out his best. Somebody was paying attention to this fact when they made the sequel Rooster Cogburn and cast Katherine Hepburn opposite him. Listening to the banter between the two venerable Hollywood icons is what endeared the audience to the story.
Quentin Tarantino is often credited with bringing dialogue back to cinema. For a while, 80’s blockbuster movie dialogue had devolved to mostly snappy, but frankly stupid, one-liners. Tarantino made stories about characters first, then what was happening to them second. He made their discussions interesting and poignant, creating three dimensional characters in the process. Even if you’re not a fan of Tarantino’s ultra-violent and gory style, you still can’t help but be fascinated when watching his characters have a simple conversation over coffee…just before they whip out guns.
What you don’t want dialogue to do is distract from your story. I recently read a book where the main characters, an eight and ten year old, spoke like adults. They referred to each other as “children,” and when they spoke to other adults, it was as equals. Though the rest of the writing was quite good, the fact that the author basically spoke through the characters without a discernible transition from the non-dialogue narrative was awkward.
So what does good dialogue look like? What is it’s formula? What does bad dialogue look like? What do you avoid?
Simple sentences, the meat and potatoes of dialogue, are character statements preceded or followed by “tags” (he, she, it, etc): “Hello,” she said.
Sentences preceded by descriptive text can set the tone for what is about to be said: Bob stifled a laugh. “Surely you’re joking.”
Likewise, descriptive text following a sentence can enhance what was just said: “I can’t do that!” he shouted, though it wasn’t necessary, for his eyes said it all.
Text that breaks a sentence in half can add action, give description, or provide a dramatic pause: “If I do this for you,” he sighed heavily as if knowing the request was futile, “will you promise me you’ll go?”
Sometimes a sentence is strong enough to stand alone and doesn’t need accompanying text: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Now, use these methods back and forth between two or more characters in a scene and you have dialogue.
The example of the children characters speaking “out of character” above is a good example of what not to do. There are also things within dialogue you want to avoid. Like, over using italics. Over using ALL CAPS. Over…using…ellipses, or using them…..incorrectly (the only character able to pull that off is Captain Kirk. Maybe TJ Hooker). Extending words for emphasis: Nooooo! Yesssss!—Accompanied by a fist pump. That may work well in graphic novels and comics, but not so much in literature. You never saw Jane Eyre hissing a “Yeeesss!”—Accompanied by a fist pump. Over using s-stuttering and s-stammering, or using them i-i-i-incorrectly.
Though it is acceptable to use these techniques sparingly, it is far better to heed the advice of your middle school English teacher and “Show, not tell.”
The table below gives a brief run down on these basics from which you can extrapolate.
To see these methods in action, take a gander at the samples available on my website, particularly the sample titled “Faith” at http://adamcopelandsite.com/echoes-of-avalon/samples/
Hopefully you are now inspired to utilize the full potential of dialogue in your writing. That should be an easy task to accomplish so long as you remember to make it entertaining, further the story, and make it flow seamlessly with the action. After it’s all done and said, what was done in your story, you want said, and said well.