Dig Into Dialogue
Dialogue Moves Your Story
Dialogue is a verbal action. When a character speaks, they are actively moving the story forward. When the language, rhythm, and voice is clear for each character, your dialogue not only flows in your story you’ll minimize the need for repetitive dialogue tags.
Dialogue may not feel as dramatic as a fight scene, but what character’s say have the power to move the story forward, create immediate conflict, and stir the reader’s curiosity to find out what happens next.
How your characters speak reveals their personality. Especially in mysteries, characters reveal their character, even when they try to hide it. The challenge for writers is to make the language each character uses, appropriate to that character and distinct from other characters in the story. That way, readers understand who is talking.
Preparing for Dialogue
The best way to write distinctive dialogue is to know your character.
- Character background. Add dialogue segments to your character background. Speech habits, like repeatedly saying OK or turning statements into questions. Note delivery style – animated or deadpan. For mystery suspects, add details about actions either conscious or unconscious they make when telling a lie.
- Research. Interview people who embody your character. Or use the time-tested someone you know as the speech model. A female biochemist and a male who breeds Bengal cats will have not just a different vocabulary, but speech rhythms and pet phrases. Listen to people talking in cafes, buses, trains, at the airport or any public venue. You don’t have to visit a crack house to learn the language. Watch characters in movies, television series, and YouTube to grab dialogue details
- Cast Your Characters. When you cast a real person – actor, acquaintance – as your character, listen to how they use their voice to speak. Borrow phrases, intonation, and body movement to create dialogue details for your characters.
Capture the details to make each speaker in your novel unique. Use syntax, vocabulary, and tone to help your reader understand who is speaking. The more you individualize speech, the better your reader understands the character.
Strike a Balance
There are no hard-and-fast rules about when and when not to blend dialogue, action and narrative. To weave them together well is to find your story’s rhythm. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself about your story, especially in the rewrite stage, that can help you know which elements are most effective for a particular scene, and which might be better used elsewhere.
- Is the story moving a little too slowly, and do I need to speed things up? (Use dialogue.)
- Is it time to give the reader some background on the characters so they’re more sympathetic? (Use narrative, dialogue or a combination of the two.)
- Do I have too many dialogue scenes in a row? (Use action or narrative.)
- Are my characters constantly confiding in others about things they should only be pondering in their minds? (Use narrative.)
- Likewise, are my characters alone in their heads when my characters in conversation would be more effective and lively? (Use dialogue.)
- Is my story top-heavy in any way at all—too much dialogue, too much narrative or too much action? (Insert more of the elements that are missing.)
- Are my characters providing too many background details as they’re talking to each other? (Use narrative.)
Balance starts to flow more naturally the more you write. That’s why Keep Writing is more than just a phrase. Your skills grow as you practice.
Troubleshoot Your Dialogue
Once you’ve written the dialogue, check for natural speech and moving the story forward. Here are some actions to take to fine-tune your dialogue passages.
- Say the dialogue out loud
- Cut small talk
- Keep your dialogue brief and impactful
- Give each character a unique voice
- Add world-appropriate slang
- Be consistent with the characters’ voices
- Appropriate to the character listening
- Avoid long dialogue paragraphs
- Cut out greetings
- Demonstrate the character’s personality
Good Dialogue Stems from Character Motivation and Feelings
Know your character. Their goals and feelings. Get them to take the action of speaking to work toward their goal. When you approach dialogue as action based on a character’s current emotional state and goal, you’ll find dialogue flows.
And, because each character has different and sometimes opposing goals and feelings, the words they speak will feel true to character. You’ll avoid flat dialogue, enrich each scene, and keep your reader wondering what will come next.
Excerpt from a lesson in Write A Killer Mystery. Get the whole course and finish your mystery novel.
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