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  • Writer's pictureMegan DiMaria

Keys to writing effective dialogue, part 2

In last week's post, we discussed dialogue in context, with internal thoughts, and with visceral reactions. Today we'll talk about using body language and mannerisms to enhance dialogue and avoiding dialogue ping-pong.

Body language and mannerisms are also a part of good dialogue. When you “see” what’s happening to the characters during their dialogue, you understand them more and their characterization is deepened.

Do a search for "body language sites." There are plenty of articles and Youtube videos that explain different movements and mannerisms. That way, you can be sure you're characters are using the correct nonverbal communication to say exactly what you want them to say.

Here's an example:

“This account has been frozen, ma’am.”

“Excuse me?” Her hand fisted.

“It looks like there were fraudulent charges, and it was suspended as a precaution.”

Julie shook her head. “No, those charges are legitimate.” She squeezed the back of her neck. “I’m overseas in Ireland. I’m trying to use the card.”

“Mrs. Bowers, your account’s been frozen, and I can’t undo that at this time.”

Julie ran her hand through her hair. “Listen, I don’t know who you need to put on the line, but I’ve got a flight to catch.”

“Ma’am. I can hear the anxiety in your voice, and I’m sorry for it. But the bank is acting in your best interest. There’s a good chance you’re being protected from a scam.”

Julie pulled out a scrap of paper. “May I have your name again?” She clicked the plunger at the top of the pen several times, waiting for the clerk to speak.

Poor Julie, she was in a tough spot. If you were there and standing across the room, you'd be able to see that she was under stress by her movements.

The first rule of dialogue is to avoid dialog ping-pong. It’s boring and unnatural. People don’t speak logically.

Here's an example of dialogue ping-pong:

Nora slipped into the seat across from Rose. The cool vinyl chilled her thighs as she scooted to the middle of the booth.

“Thanks for joining me, Nora.”

“You’re welcome. How have you been?”

“I’ve been fine, thank you. And you?”

“I’ve been better, thanks.”

Rose picked up the red menu. “What are you going to order?”

“I’ve heard the chicken soup is delicious.”

Here's a more interesting take on the conversation. This one gets right into the meat of the plot:

Nora slipped into the seat across from Rose. The cool vinyl chilled her thighs as she scooted to the middle of the booth.

“Thanks for joining me, Nora .”

“Did I have a choice?”

Rose slid the menu across the Formica table and flipped it open. “It was an absolute stroke of luck that I ran into Amy at the farmers market last weekend. If not, I would have never heard about your situation.”

Nora gazed down the red menu. “I may just order tea.”

Rose arched her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “I’ve heard the gazpacho is delicious. And like revenge, it’s a dish best served cold.”

Wasn't that second snippet much more fun to read? Sometimes it’s effective to answer a statement or a question with another question. Or, don't even answer the question—leave the unanswered response just hanging out there. As an added bonus, I used the cool vinyl of the restaurant booth to add to the mood of the story, showing how uncomfortable poor Nora was.

Dialogue should read like real speech, not a transcription. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “A good story is life with the dull parts taken out,” so eliminate unessential dialogue that does not move the story forward.

Next week we'll look at how to continue to create convincing dialogue.

Write on, friends!


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