Monday, May 08, 2006

DR: Talk is cheap…or is it?

One of the most important aspects of any novel is the dialogue. When I’m reading a novel, my level of excitement goes up when I turn to a page that’s heavy with dialogue. I think that’s because dialogue alone can accomplish so many things in a story. It can:

*move the plot forward
*help us show, instead of tell
*create and sustain conflict
*demonstrate the relationships between characters
*deepen characterization in a variety of ways
*enhance the story's mood or tone
*inject humor, compassion, and a host of other emotions
*cause the reader to empathize with a character

The best way I've found to make sure my dialogue rings true is to read it aloud, complete with body language and hand motions. Usually, in first draft I pound out dialogue almost as fast as I can think. But if I find myself uncertain about a particular line of dialogue, I can discover if it rings true by reading it aloud as though I were an actor rehearsing the role of my character.

This initial read-aloud will also often give me hints as to beats, tags, facial expressions, and character description that could accompany the line. I actually keep a mirror handy on my desk so I can study the expression on my face as I read certain lines. In rewrite, I read every section of dialogue aloud, and do a considerable amount of tweaking once I've heard the words come to life. I'm convinced every writer needs to have a bit of stage actor inside, itching to get out.

As I do this read-aloud-act-it-out draft, these are some of the things I'm looking for:

*Does the line tell us something about the character's beliefs, moral character, background, etc.?

*Does the dialogue add to the conflict of the story, and move the plot along?

*Does the line ring true for the age of the character? (I read a beautifully written, bestselling novel not long ago, but I really had trouble believing the novel's nine-year-old character. She wrote long, lyrical poems, used words like patronizing and fortuitous, and generally thought like an adult. She yanked me out of the story each time she appeared.)

*Does the line reflect the character's level of education and/or intelligence? A college-educated businessman might use the word fortuitous, but it's less likely to come from a high-school dropout. Even less likely for a nine-year-old girl. Of course, occasionally it makes for an interesting character to purposely give him/her a trait that seems contrary to what you'd expect.

*Does the dialogue sound like real life? Is it what the character would say in this situation, this era, society, etc., were it real life?

Dialogue can't be written exactly as it is spoken in real life—or else our books would be filled with pages of um and er and uh. Still, the dialogue we write for our characters should be a good, cleaned-up representation of actual speech. Again, reading aloud will help you spot the places where your dialogue might be stilted or unrealistic.

*Does the dialogue give readers a sense of the setting? Almost any locale has certain catchphrases, colloquial slang, etc. that is unique to that area of the world. Judiciously sprinkling these in your character's dialogue enhances the setting of your novel. (This is one reason to write what you know—or plan to research your tail off!)

*Is the dialogue fresh and occasionally surprising? Sometimes, when I'm writing dialogue in first draft, I'll stop the flow and go back and think "now that's what everyone will expect her to say. What could she say that would be totally unexpected?" It's a good way to create a plot twist, or add to characterization.

In real life, I never think of a clever comeback until hours after the opportunity to use it has passed. I love that when I write, I get to spend months honing my characters’ quick retorts and witty repartee.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Vow to Cherish (Steeple Hill, June 2006) and Remember to Forget (coming from Howard Books/Simon & Schuster).


At 11:01 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post, Deb. I love hearing how authors write, and it was interesting reading how you keep a hand mirror nearby to study your facial expressions while reading aloud your dialogue segments. Thanks for some great tips on writing dialogue.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

"Nice post, Deb."
"Thanks, Jim."
"You can put down the gun now."
"I don't like lawyers."
"I said, put down the..."

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Thanks, Kristy.

And LOL, Jim. Talk about "fresh and occasionally surprising" dialogue - especially the fresh part! I'm curious what your face looked like in the mirror as you read MY lines! ; )

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Illuminating Fiction said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7:03 AM, Blogger Illuminating Fiction said...

Wonderful post, Deb!

And very timely. I've just started working with a group of new writers covering the basics in fiction writing, and one of the writers asked for dialogue pointers. Your post is the perfect example of how to write effective dialogue.

I'll be sharing this post with the group.


At 7:26 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Vennessa asked my permission privately to use the information in my post with her writers group, which I gladly gave. Thought this might be a good place to remind Charis Connection readers that our posts are available for limited use. You can find details for permissions here:
(There's also a link to this information at the bottom of our blog sidebar.)

At 4:47 PM, Blogger C. H. Green said...

I found this post particularly helpful. I already was reading my dialogue aloud, but I haven't tried the mirror trick to validate my characters' expressions. Can't wait to see how it works. I bet my husband will really think I've lost my marbles. LOL.


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