by Elizabeth Rose
My favorite part of writing, believe it or not, is the dialogue. While many authors may feel this is a challenging aspect in their novel, I, instead look forward to the dialogue as I let my characters write the book themselves. Personally, I think dialogue can make or break a story. Here are some tips I’ve discovered that may help you with yours.
First off, don’t be afraid to use dialogue. After all, what would a story be that had only narration? Pretty boring, right? The editors will be looking for those white spaces on the pages that only dialogue provides. Without dialogue, I think a reader would be too intimidated to even pick up the novel and start reading. Face it – today most readers want a fast read. Who has the time to spend months reading one book? Narration slows down the pace of story, dialogue gets things moving. If your story starts to sag in the middle – why not add a bit more dialogue and speed things up?
Dialogue is a great tool for many aspects of writing.
1) creating a great hook
2) creating characterization
3) condensing long passages of back story
4) to show instead of tell
5) injecting a bit of humor
There are many more, but let’s explore these five ways to use dialogue.
Creating a good hook
There’s nothing more appealing than a book that gives you a first sentence of dialogue so intriguing, that you can’t put it down. Why start the novel with a paragraph of narration that only describes the setting, gives back story or simply introduces or describes a character? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this, only that sometimes, a line of creative dialogue can hook the reader faster than any other way.
For example: In Laura Renken’s, My Lord Pirate, she starts out with, “Draw no blood, men. Remember, this is to be a wedding party.”
She sets up a situation, draws the reader in, and makes you want to read on. The reader wonders – who is this speaking? Why would he/she even have to mention drawing blood, and whose wedding party are they at? They obviously sound like they’re up to no good, but why? And what are they planning to do?
Another example would be something like: “Release the girl, or I’ll be forced to kill you.” Or how about “I’m sorry Ms. Jones, but your actions have just given me reason to fire you.”
So you see, you capture the reader’s attention, get them thinking, asking questions, and then keep them reading to find out more.
An excellent way to let your readers know about your characters is through their speech. When dialogue is used properly, it should define your characters so thoroughly that if you took off all the tags of Jake said, or Daisy whispered, we would still know who was talking.
For example, in my Greek myth fantasy romance, Kyros’ Secret, one of the main characters is Ares, God of War. With a line like this, one doesn’t wonder who is speaking.
“Just once is all you need to kill and then the rage and glory of war will be imbedded upon your soul. Just once is all you need to feel the triumph of power over your mother’s weak blood that flows through your veins.”
With my heroine being the daughter of the god of war and goddess of love, it is easy to characterize her parents through dialogue alone. We can see through Ares’ speech that he is a ruthless man who thrives on war. Just from these two sentences, we learn that he wants his daughter to be a warrior like him, and that he thinks love only weakens a person, obviously having done so himself or he wouldn’t have coupled with the goddess of love in the first place. The struggle of good/bad is obvious, and his pull to sway his daughter down his path.
Many manuscripts are rejected from editors just because they don’t find the characters’ dialogue believable. Another way to add to your characters’ special way of talking would be if they spoke with accents. An Irish brogue or a Scottish burr flags that character right off the bat as unique. Unless, of course, every character in the book spoke with the same accent. But even then, you can single them out by the way they think and put their words into sentences. Let me use another example to get this point across.
In My Lord Pirate, Ms. Renken has a very interesting secondary character named Parrot. This character speaks Cockney, obviously having had a rough life and having grown up in a seedy part of town as seen by the dialogue.
“Oi ain’t no bugger slave. ’Sides, the cap, he says fer me not ta coddle ya, being ’is prisoner ’an all.”
So through the use of dialogue we learn Parrot is independent, stubborn, proud, but yet has a bit of nurturing down deep, but doesn’t want to show it, therefore using the captain as the excuse not to. The sense of loyalty to the captain is seen through the dialogue as well.
Condensing Back Story
Instead of using narration to tell tons of back story, let your characters do it for you through dialogue. It makes it much more interesting, plus it gives the characters a chance to develop.
For example, in my book Eden’s Garden, I combine a bit of narration with the use of dialogue of Eden Ramirez, the heroine, and her dying father to tell of their relationship.
“Papa . . . don’t die,” Eden said in her native tongue.
She took his large hand in hers and rubbed it softly against her cheek. He was so unlike the hardened professor who had come from the States year after year to study the Incan ruins of Machu Pichhu, hoping to find some uncovered truth or hidden treasure of the ancient culture that was destroyed so many years ago.
“I wanted to marry your mother – really,” he whispered through his ragged breathing. “I’m sorry. I wish I could have been the father you needed.”
Even if you didn’t know Eden was half Peruvian and lived far from her American father, you could see the distance of their past in their words. Her words show us she has feelings for him and doesn’t want to lose him. His words show most the back story. We find out he has never married her mother, he’s sorry about, and obviously had feelings for the woman, but something didn’t work out. He knows he hasn’t been a good father or there for his daughter, and we see his guilt as well. So, in just a few sentences, we find out what may have taken a page to tell about the back story.
Use dialogue To Show Instead Of Tell
Use your dialogue to show what you want to tell the reader. Instead of coming out and saying it with narration, let your characters do it for you. It’s more interesting, plus it’ll give the characters time to interact.
Eden Reed does a fine job of this in this next passage from her book, The Valley of Hemlock.
“There are other residents in the house, aren’t there?”
The corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile at my obvious concern for my virtue. “Yes, there are other ‘residents’. There are two in the physical sense: a cook and a housekeeper. But I’m not sure how many actual ‘residents’ roam the halls.”
“Are you trying to tell me that this house is haunted?” I was beginning to tire of people trying to scare me.
His features turned hard again without warning. “That is the rumor.”
“If you’re trying to frighten me, sir, you are wasting your time. I no more believe in ghosts than in flying pigs. So if you are finished, I’d like to retire. As you’ve been so gracious in allowing me to stay the night, I’d like to spend the rest of it sleeping.”
“My intent is not to frighten you Miss Barlow only to persuade you. I would still prefer that you move to a different room.”
Here we find out that Boothe House is said to be haunted. Ms. Reed has shown us the mystery as well as a bit of danger in her hero. We know that he wants her to move to another room and will even revert to scaring the heroine if he has to, to do it. He has a secret there to protect that he obviously doesn’t want her to discover. The heroine’s dialogue shows us that she is feisty and not afraid to stand up to anyone. We see her strength, as well as her practicality, and her boldness to those who try to manipulate her. There’s a sense of formality to both their words, so the respect for each other is still evident, but yet we sense obstinate behavior from both of them.
So instead of Ms. Reed telling us that her heroine is tough and practical, and her hero cunning but yet still direct, she’s shown us.
The last aspect of using dialogue I’m going to mention for now, is using it to add a bit of humor into your story. This is a great way to show the playfulness or personality of a lighthearted character. Or perhaps even a normally dark character who has a spirited side to him.
In The Valley of Hemlock, I find this passage a good example. The hero has just found the heroine snooping around in the fireplace.
“I don’t believe we’ve met. Cinderella, isn’t it?”
. . . Mortification was too mild a word. Maybe if I could just crawl up the chimney.
“You’ll never make it,” Eric read my mind. “You’ll get stuck about half way up. I’ll have a devil of a time trying to get you out, not to mention, ruining a perfectly good suit.”
“Do you always spy on people?” I asked in irritation.
“I wasn’t spying. I was merely walking in the door when I heard a barrage of curses. I didn’t realize you possessed such a colorful vocabulary.”
My palette had only just begun.
“Are you going to come out of there or do you plan on spending the rest of the day in the ashes?” he inquired.
“I was hoping maybe you’d go away.”
“Not likely. At least, not until you tell me what you’re doing in there. Can’t find your glass slipper?”
“You know how slippery glass is. I’m forever leaving it behind,” I said, backing out of the fireplace carrying a heaping pile of cinders with me. A section of broken glass, the size of a petite shoe rolled out. I lifted it with a shrug. “Posh! The wrong size.”
This is a way to break up a story that may normally be serious throughout. Here, we see the playfulness and attraction each of the characters has for each other. Though the time period suggests they are still very formal to each other, we see their resolves caving in as they weaken and have a bit of fun in an uncomfortable situation. They both let down their guards and we get a glimpse into their true selves.
Using these five ways, dialogue can work for you, not against you in creating your novel.
To continue our discussion on dialogue, in part two I’d like to add to the five methods of using dialogue I’ve mentioned earlier. Two other ways to use dialogue with a purpose would be to:
*Creating a mood, or tone of the story
*Give the reader a sense of setting
Creating the Mood
Lissa Michaels creates the tone of her story, Captive Hearts, by using her characters’ dialogue in the beginning of the story to convey a message.
Morgan walked over to the desk and flipped on the viewscreen. His brother’s smiling face appeared.
“Where in the three phases of hell have you been?”
Galen sputtered, his face flushing. “We delivered all the missives, then picked up the trade goods we’d ordered, Morg, it was great! The broker got everything we requested. I managed to get two cases of Folian brandy for you and a water crib for Sabina and Boyan’s baby, and –“
He flinched. “We were so close to Pleasara, and Hastin said we had time to –“
“Hastin!” Morgan swore. “I should have known. Here I’ve been worried sick you were taken by the Jotnar, and you were rolling around in some whore’s bed.”
“I didn’t send you out on a pleasure cruise, blast it. Don’t you know how dangerous it is for us? You get in, do your business, and get out. There’s no time for anything else.”
“I know, but – “
Morgan turned his back on his brother, effectively cutting off Galen’s excuses. “I shouldn’t have let you go.”
Here, Ms. Michaels has set the tone of urgency and danger of the mission. Morgan’s anger, as well as concern for his brother shows that family ties run deep, a great setup to possibly be used against him later. While Galen is triumphant of his little shopping trip and trying to impress his brother, Morgan’s dominance sets the tone to let the reader know he is the boss. We feel danger through his words, anxiousness, intrigue with a sense of fear at his mention of the Jotnar, and we know that this story will hold action, suspense, and an obvious encounter with the dreaded Jotnar later on.
Dialogue that is cut off, as we’ve just seen conveys a sense of urgency. Morgan felt the need to speak before his brother was finished. Action speeds up with the shorter dialogue, and will slow down with long passages. To keep it believable, watch that your dialogue conveys your tone through its length as well.
Sense of Time and Setting
Use your dialogue to remind readers of which time and place your story is set. Every time period has its slang, but be careful to use it correctly. Normally, the farther back in date you go, the more formal the speech was. Contractions are seen more in modern day novels. Make sure you do your research to insure proper words for proper times.
Dialogue can convey if your story is a pirate novel, a medieval set in England, or a western.
In this passage of Rawhide Surrender, by Elysa Hendricks, the dialogue gives you no doubt this is a western.
Disgust thickened KC’s words. “Red Buffalo is a slimy snake who’d slit your throat as quick as he’d swat a fly.”
“But such a pretty snake, so lean, so tall, so strong.” Carmelita gave an exaggerated sigh of longing. “He could make Carmelita’s heart beat fast.”
“He could make Carmelita’s heart stop beating.,” KC muttered, never taking her eyes off the riders. They stopped at the cantina, the logical place if they had it in mind to do some trading.. . .
“This Red Buffalo, I think I might be available if he wants a woman.” Carmelita stepped out of the barn.
KC snagged the woman by the arm and hauled her back.
“You’re crazy as a coot. Look at them, woman, they’re savages, fresh off the warpath. They’d eat you alive.”
Here we get a feel of the setting, just by the characters and the words they use.
When trying to convey a thought – such as someone asking another what is bothering them, make sure it sounds convincing. While modern day dialogue may say “what’s up?” a medieval may read “what takes your concern, my lord?”
If you want to find out if a word was in use for the time period you’re writing in, you can use references such as Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary or The Dictionary of Etymology: The origins of American English words.
What NOT To Do
When writing dialogue, there are ways to use it that can actually backfire on your work.. You may want to avoid these, as they can only weaken a story.
By being redundant, you not only aggravate the reader, but slow down the flow of the story. If we know there are only two people in a scene, you don’t need to tag every bit of dialogue. That’s why we start a new paragraph each time a new person speaks.
Let me give an example:
“Listen,” said Maria. “I think I hear something.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” John grumbled.
“Don’t call me ridiculous, Maria snapped. “If you just listen, you’ll hear the noise too.”
“Maria,” John said with a grin, “you are still afraid of the dark after all these years, aren’t you?”
After the first two sentences, we know who is speaking. We really don’t need the tags in the last two sentences, nor do we need to have John say Maria’s name. We already know he’s speaking to her.
A better way to write it would be:
“Listen.” Maria stilled John with her hand on his arm. (Here’s an action, mentioning both characters, instead of a tag.) “I think I hear something.”
“You’re being ridiculous.” John brushed her hand away with a laugh.
“I’m not!” (No need to repeat the word ridiculous again)
“You’re still afraid of the dark after all these years, aren’t you?”
One of my biggest pet peeves is when a conversation goes nowhere and says nothing. Make sure you use all your dialogue for a purpose. Avoid small chat such as introductions that take up pages, or telephone calls that say:
“Hello?” said Susie, speaking into the receiver.
“Hello,” answered her good friend, Mable.
“How are you?” Susie’s voice perked up at hearing the voice of her friend she hadn’t seen in a while.
“I’m good, how about you?” answered Mable.
“I’m doing okay,” sighed Susie, “ but I’ve been a bit tired.”
“Yeah, I think this weather has everyone tired and depressed,” Mable agreed.
Get to the point quickly, and try to keep the reader’s interest in the plot at hand. Do you really need to go through small talk that no reader cares about? Ask yourself this, and cut to the chase, while keeping the pace of the story.
In other words, instead of the above passage, why not just simplify it?
Tired and depressed, Susie picked up the phone, surprised to hear the voice of her good friend Mable.
“Mable, it’s been so long since we’ve talked.”
“Yes, I know. But I just had to call to let you know I’m getting married.”
This corrected version cuts to the chase, and still lets us know with a few simple lines that they are old friends who haven’t seen each other in awhile. We know Mable’s reason for calling, and we aren’t bogged down with idle chatter that doesn’t move the story forward.
By forecasting in the narration, we lose the impact of hearing something through dialogue. A simple example:
Ginny jumped in surprise when a man stepped out from behind the bushes. She was so scared that she bit her tongue. Fear was the only thing keeping her from running, until she recognized Mark.
“You scared me to death, Mark. I even bit my tongue! Don’t ever do that again.”
We don’t need to hear her relate something we’ve already had forecast in the previous line. Instead, a better version would be:
Ginny’s heart leaped into her throat at the site of a man in the bushes. The taste of blood kept her frozen to the spot. Then she recognized the dark figure. (We don’t need to say it’s Mark here – save that for the dialogue. We mention the taste of blood, and that’s enough for now.)
“Mark!” she gasped. “You scared me and made me bite my tongue. Don’t ever do that again.”
Also, you’ll want to avoid telling backstory through dialogue in a way that sounds like it’s only put there for the reader.
“You remember Roxy, don’t you?” asked Jill.
“Roxy,” repeated Tess. “Isn’t she the one who ran away with her best friend’s husband?”
“Right after she was the maid of honor at Debbie and Jake’s wedding,” added Jill.
“And then she jumped off a cliff because she was so ashamed of what she did?”
“Exactly. Only she survived, and her best friend Debbie was the doctor who saved he life..”
Instead, we can weave the information into the conversation without sounding as if we’re trying to fill the reader in on something.
“Roxy isn’t easy to forget,” said Jill.
Tess nodded her head. “If she was my best friend, I never would have saved her from her fall the way Debbie stepped in as if she hadn’t betrayed her.”
“Debbie is a doctor. She puts her job above personal problems, that’s what I always liked about her.”
“True,” agreed Tess. “Any woman who could put aside the fact her patient stole her husband, and go about saving her patient’s life anyway deserves a reward.”
Hopefully, with these tips you can make your dialogue sparkle and work for you, not against you.