Archive for March, 2012

Let’s Talk — Creating Great Dialog

copyright 2012 by Sherry Garland

Dialog is one of the most fundamental, powerful tools authors have at their command. Dialog serves many purposes; it moves the story forward; reveals past events and develops character. Here are some tips for writing powerful dialog:

1) Dialog is not conversation. Placing words in quotation marks does not make dialog. Eavesdrop on a group of children or teens and you will hear them interrupting each other, talking at the same time, cursing, laughing, using incomplete sentences and incorrect grammar, going off on tangents, changing the subject and sometimes talking with their mouths full. That is real life. That is real conversation. And if your novel used that sort of material, the reader would throw it down in frustration. Don’t fill the page with pointless dialog talking about the weather and the neighbor’s cat, unless of course, a tornado is approaching and the cat is stuck up a tree!!

2) Use dialog to reveal character. Compare the words of a loud, boisterous, joking person to a withdrawn, shy person or a nerd-like genius. Their word usage will be as different as their actions, looks and clothes. Dialog can reveal the character’s educational level, where he was raised (Southern dialect versus Scottish brogue, for example) or even his age (compare swell to groovy to awesome). It can reveal his inner most feelings and how he feels about someone or some place. Dialog can also be used to describe the character of someone not in the room. Betty said, “That MaryLou thinks she’s something special now, doesn’t she? She won’t even talk to me in the hall anymore.” Tina added: “Yeah, time was, she wasn’t so picky who she hung out with.”

3) Use dialog to reveal background. Dialog can get across background material a lot faster than a long piece of exposition or a long flashback. A girl might say: “My mother was born and raised here in Paducah, but she ran away at fourteen and never came back” instead of spending a hundred works talking about her mother’s childhood.

4) Use dialog to convey information and facts. We’ve all seen the TV show or read a novel where one of the characters is a nerdy genius type who is a walking encyclopedia and speaks up when facts are needed — “Ted Bundy drove a VW Beetle and had an IQ of 126.” But avoid too much information in your dialog. Nothing stilts a story more than ridiculously long dialog that is obviously being used for the sole purpose of relaying facts. Even when dialog is relaying information, it still must sound like real dialog and be interesting.

5) Use dialog to convey setting. Dialog is a shortcut that eliminates the need for long passages of description.  Personally, I love description, but many of today’s young readers do not. They are used to the instant gratification of video games and television.  Here’s an example of how dialog can take the place of a setting description: “Oh, Sam, look at the mountains.  I never dreamed they would be so breathtaking. And the smell!!  It’s like a Christmas tree lot.”  If your setting is in a foreign land, a sprinkling of foreign words in the dialog helps to establish the locale.

6) Use dialog to describe people. In addition to conveying a character’s personality, dialog is also one of the quickest ways to relay physical descriptions of characters. You could spend a hundred words explaining how a girl’s appearance had changed since the last time the hero saw her or you could have him say to a friend: “Did you see MaryLou?  She must have lost fifty pounds over the summer.  And that new hairstyle–wow!”

7) Use dialog to develop plot.  This is one of the most important uses of dialog.  Remember this famous line: “Papa, where are you going with that axe?” or this line “The British are coming!!” or something like this: “If I can just reach my brother’s house across the river, everything will be all right. He’ll know what to do.” All of them are developing the plot, moving the story along.

8) Use dialog to make transitions. The purpose of transition is to change scenes or chapters with as little disruption to the reader as possible. Let’s say that a scene ended with Henry, saying: “I’ve got to find that missing necklace or my sister will skin me alive.” Instead of spending lots of words showing him looking for the necklace all day, the next scene starts with his friend saying: “Henry!  Where have you been all day?  I’ve been calling you since nine o’clock. I was afraid you’d miss tonight’s game.”  And Henry replies: “I was looking for that stupid necklace I lost.  I couldn’t find it.  Guess I’ll have to buy another one.”

9) Use dialog to foreshadow. Foreshadowing is the delicate art of hinting at the future without giving it away. Dialog is often more subtle than narrative, since the character speaking may not know he is predicting the future. George said: “This time tomorrow, who knows, I could be dead.”

10) Make dialog strong. Read your dialog out loud. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking without relying too heavily on tags such as “he said.” Do this by giving each character a distinct voice. Boys talk differently than girls, old differently than young, foreign differently than local. Avoid excessive slang — that dates your novel and makes it go out of style really fast. Don’t ramble or have too many throat-clearing and uhs and umms, even though this happens in real life. Use only speaking verbs such as: said, spoke, replied, shout, called out, screamed, whispered, cried, shrieked, etc.  You cannot laugh words, or grimace words, or frown words.

11) Make dialog appropriate for the age level of the readers.  This means no profanity in MG novels or lower YA novels. The higher YA novels do include profanity, but just keep in mind that even one “cuss word,” can be enough to get your book banned or removed from a state reading list.


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