Keys to writing effective dialogue, part 4
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
Three weeks ago, we discussed dialogue in context, with internal thoughts, and with visceral reactions.
This week, we'll look at how dialogue can control the pace of the story.
To speed up the story, use short sentences with few action beats. This will give you a lot of white space on the page and create a feeling of fast motion. Here's an example:
“Artie.” She clutched the arms of her chair.
He turned back to her. “And I don’t think I’ve ever asked anything of you, Julie. But now I am.”
“Why is this so important?”
“Because it’s important to Catherine, and we both love her.”
To slow down the pace of a story, put action beats, thoughts, or description into the story.
Action beat: “Come here!” Pamela held out her arm and curled her index finger in a maddening rhythm.
Thoughts: “Come here!” She bet she could make his lazy bones move quickly. Perhaps tempt him with a plate of freshly baked brownies?
Description: “Come here!” The breeze teased the golden locks resisting the ribbon tied around her ponytail. In the sunlight, it appeared as though her head was wreathed in a pale halo, but Brad knew she was no angel.
Dialogue is more than a way to express your character’s words. It is also a way to express your fictional world. To illustrate, here's a snippet from Searching for Spice (A romance-deprived photographer’s assistant longs for a sizzling affair with her husband.):
Just as I turn on the radio, my cell phone rings. A glance at the screen tells me it’s a call from Jerry. Suddenly my frustrations begin to melt away. The memory of our morning kiss sends sparks of excitement pinging around my stomach.
“Hi, Jer.” My pulse accelerates in anticipation of sharing another special moment with my honey. My day is definitely picking up momentum.
“Linny, I can’t find my tennis shoes.”
Tennis shoes? That’s not romantic. “What?”
“Where are the ones I usually cut the grass in? They’re not in my closet.”
My mind is still on the delicious kiss we shared forty minutes ago. Doesn’t he want to thank me again for his breakfast surprise? “What?”
“I’m taking my class down to the pond today, and I need my tennis shoes.”
I give myself a mental shake and sigh in slight frustration. Tennis shoes. Hmm. “Oh, Jer. Didn’t you step in dog poop on Saturday when you were mowing the grass?”
“That’s right. I left them in the garage. Thanks, hon.”
Before I can say another word he rings off.
Homework: Choose a moment when your character has to do something way out of her comfort zone. Write for five minutes. Show your character's reaction and dialogue while s/he is operating out of his or her comfort zone. You don’t have to give background.
To strengthen your writing skills, avoid dialogue tags: he said, she said. Instead, use active narrative. Here's an example from one of my favorite Melanie Dobson novels, Hidden Among the Stars:
Charlotte looks up, her short hair combed neatly behind ears. "Where did Brianna find this?"
"From a seller in Idaho." I dip my spoon into a bowl of fudge ice cream and savor the sweet chocolate. "She wanted to surprise me for my birthday."
She turns the page. "My mother read this story to me when I was a girl."
Not a single "she said" in that passage, yet there's no doubt who is speaking.
Here's another good tip, don’t use repetitive tags:
“Stop shouting!” He yelled.
“I’ll tell you about it.” She explained.
Interior monologue is a variation of dialogue. You can create more impact by converting interior monologue into a question. Instead of saying: She wondered why he always took a compliment and shred it to pieces. Try: Why did he always take a compliment and shred it to pieces?
Dialogue is about what is said and not said. Dialogue moves a scene, advances the plot, creates emotion and conflict, and reveals our characters and their goals.
I hope this four-week review was helpful to you.
Write on, friends!