June 13, 2012

Dialogue Without Skipping a Beat

by Richelle Putnam, Special Features Director

      Dialogue is like a main artery, pumping life into your manuscript. So much more than simple speech and conversation, dialogue develops storyline action with each passing word. It is an author’s best tool for revealing character strengths and weaknesses.

     How can a writer develop realistic dialogue? Learn to be quiet and listen. Go to any public place and observe, take notes. Women talk differently than men, children differently than women, teenagers differently than children. Women stop to admire a blouse and start back up on the same conversation. Children dart to the Toys-R-Us window and make it clear in loud, shrill voices which toy they want. Most likely, teenagers will be hanging out in groups at record shops and food courts.

You’ll discover lots of jabber filled with incomplete sentences, okay in real life, but not in stories. Why not? It’s boring and doesn’t move the story forward. If a character’s trait happens to be babbling, that’s different. You’re defining the individual.

Allow dialogue to build tension. Here’s an example:

“Hello, William.”
“Whoa. Since when did I become William?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Come on, Julie. What gives?”
“Forget it.”
“Please, tell me.”
“Never mind.”
“Well, okay.”
“I saw you and Cindy. In the gym. Alone. And. And…”
“Hey, Julie, come back!”

That’s short and sweet, but the conversation paints an unmistakable conflict with only dialogue.

And what about dialog tags?

“Come on,” Jan said.
“I’m coming,” Bill said.
“Well, hurry up,” Jan said.
“I said I was coming,” Bill said.
“You say a lot of things,” Jan said.
“What’s that supposed to mean,” Bill Said.
“Just come on,” Jan said.
“I said I was coming,” Bill said.

The word “said” becomes monotonous if used line after line. But does this sound better?

“Come on,” Jan demanded.
“I’m coming,” Bill answered.
“Well, hurry up,” barked Jan.
“I said I was coming,” Bill snarled.
“You say a lot of things,” Jan shouted.
“What’s that supposed to mean,” Bill yelled.
“Just come on,” Jan spouted.
“I said I was coming,” Bill spewed.

That’s even worse! Try this?

“Would you come on?” said Jan.
“I’m coming.” Bill’s voice rose in frustration.
“Well, hurry up. We don’t’ have all day.”
“Don’t get short with me, Jan. I said I was coming.”
“You say a lot of things.”
“And what does that mean?”
Jan rolled her eyes. “Like you don’t know. Let’s just go.”

Dialogue must sound realistic, be true to the character and progress the story.

Read your dialogue aloud. Find its rhythm, the heartbeat. Where it skips a beat, revise it until it reaches that thump, thump, thump. Keep your main artery pumping life into your manuscript.

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