Keys to writing effective dialogue, part 1
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
Writing effective dialogue is essential to the success of your work whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Dialogue will either draw your reader into the scene of it will bore the reader. If your dialogue is boring, your reader may very well close the book without finishing it. No author wants that to happen.
First, you have to realize that good dialogue in books does not resemble real-life speech. When you stop at the mailbox to chat with a neighbor, the conversation is usually small talk.
However, unlike real-life conversation, dialogue in books exists to enhance characterization, support the mood, convey emotion, and control the pace of the story.
The problem most writers have with dialogue is not the words themselves, but the mechanics of dialogue. Dialogue is more than words poured out, it is all about context.
"What are you doing?" This question could be put into several different contexts:
Consider the two snippets below:
“What are you doing?” Grinning, Colette skipped into the room, her special surprise hidden behind her back.
Alex slammed the door open and stomped across the room. His handsome face twisted in disgust. “What are you doing?”
The dialogue is exactly the same, but the situations are both entirely different. As you can see, dialogue in context reveals your character’s emotions.
Here's a bit of homework for you. Take a few minutes to write a paragraph using the same phrase with two opposite meanings.
Here's an example of using the same phrase in two different contexts. These snippets are from Out of Her Hands. The characters are young newlyweds, living with the in-laws.
It’s nearly one o’clock. Jerry snores beside me. I give up. Maybe a cup of herbal tea will help me sleep.
The lights are on downstairs, and voices carry from the kitchen. It’s Nick and Amber. A cabinet door slams. They must be having another argument.
“For goodness’ sake!” Amber spits out her words. “Living in this house is like living in culinary Siberia. There’s never anything good to eat.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I quietly go back to bed.
Later in the book, the same characters are in the kitchen and the same phrase is used again.
We file through the garage. As I’m opening the door to the house, laughter greets me. More boxes are piled in the foyer by the stairs. We stand by the door absorbing the wonderful sounds coming from the next room. I grab Jerry’s hand, and he squeezes mine.
Amber’s voice carries from the kitchen. I had forgotten how lyrical it is. My heart soars at the sound of her loving banter with Nick.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she says.
Lily’s baby squeals sound like she’s trying to get in on her parents’ conversation.
I hear cabinet doors closing and Amber’s laughter. “I’m starving. And living in this house is like living in culinary Siberia.”
Another thing to consider is that adding nonverbal context heightens the scene, supports the mood, and conveys characterization. Check out the sample below.
“Are you happy?” She held her breath.
He bounced around and folded the pillow beneath his head. “What are you talking about?”
She took a deep breath. “We don’t seem to be on the same page lately.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Margaret. Maybe I never did. I’m giving you and the kids comforts I never had. I’m maintaining the lifestyle you were raised in. What more do you want?” His voice was clipped. Annoyed.
She squeezed her eyes shut, grateful for the darkness. “I want it to be like it was before the kids were born, when it was just the two of us. When we were a couple.”
“You’re not happy with our family? The kids? It’s a little too late for those regrets.”
“That’s not what I mean. I want us to be . . . Closer.”
David sighed. “We made vows, Margaret—to stick it out, no matter what. Right?”
“Vows. That’s what’s holding our marriage together? Vows?”
“Well,” he punched his pillow, “when you make a promise, you keep that promise.”
She sat up. “There has to be more. A promise doesn’t make me look forward to you coming home at the end of the day.”
“Yes. Of course.” Her heart hammered. Didn’t she? The quiet pressed down on her. “David, do you look forward to coming home each day?”
“Yeah.” He patted her leg and rolled over.
The bed felt like a raft, drifting on the open ocean.
The dialogue in that scene is fraught with emotion, at least on Margaret's part, but the added context of internal thoughts and visceral reactions add to the overall understanding of Margaret's character.
Next week, we'll discuss the difference between dialogue ping-pong—and pull-you-into-the-story dialogue.