We’ve looked at this subject before, back in 2013, but it’s always worth a revisit.
Dialogue is one of those things that a lot of writers feel insecure about. This may be because it’s sometimes hard to ensure dialogue is active, dynamic, interesting and realistic for readers, instead of being forced or stilted, melodramatic, hackneyed or just plain terrible. Readers aren’t interested in mundane pleasantries and chit-chat. They’re interested in the action and nitty-griity, the stuff that really matters.
The key to getting dialogue right is down to listening to real life conversations and observing how people interact when communicating with each other, because dialogue isn’t just about one character saying something to another. It also involves a certain amount of physicality – movement, gestures, ticks etc. And of course, each character is individual and therefore has a unique voice, a certain way of talking and acting, so this should be apparent when you write dialogue.
Dramatic dialogue enhances the atmosphere and mood of the scene by utilising emotions – anger, sadness, betrayal, frustration etc. Emotions are what lift ordinary dialogue from the page and brings the reader closer to the story. Dialogue without emotion is flat and boring, so it’s important to engage the reader in this way.
When people engage in a conversation, particularly passionate discussion, you’ll hear certain tones and pitches within people’s voices, with some people showing abrupt rhythms in their speech, while others have almost ‘sing-song’ rhythms. All these nuances show the individual personalities of your characters. They are character revealing, which dialogue should be.
Let’s look at the some examples of emotionless dialogue and the affect it has on the reader:
‘The crash happened this afternoon. I wasn’t there, but I got a phone call,’ he said.
‘That’s terrible,’ she said. ‘If there is anything we can do, just say.’
‘Thanks, but it’s done, there's nothing anyone could have done,’ he said.
This type of flat, uninspiring dialogue is very common among new writers. It’s not a bad thing, but it means that it just takes time to show the reader the emotion of the moment with the characters. If the scene is dramatic, the dialogue should show this, without being over the top, of course. So, rewritten with some warmth and emotion, it would be like this:
The knot in his throat tightened. ‘The crash happened this afternoon. I wasn’t there, but I got a phone call.’
‘Oh, Peter, that’s terrible,’ she said, and her expression sank. ‘If there is anything we can do, anything at all, just say.’
He half smiled through his hurt; a pretence. ‘Thanks, I appreciate it, but I feel so terrible, I feel I should have been there - there's nothing anyone could have done...’
This time around, there are hints to what the characters are feeling because it shows the tightening of the throat – emotion does that, or if you try to stifle crying. Her expression ‘sank’ and he half smiled to hide his true feelings of pain. This is more realistic, with reactions that carry more emotion for the reader.
Anger is another emotion that can create dramatic dialogue. If you’ve heard people in real life arguing, it involves shouting, pitched voices, being loud, as well as being physical, and lots of gestures and sudden movements. Any dramatic dialogue should capture this to make the reader believe in the emotion, and the realism, of it all, for example:
‘Why are you saying this? She was standing there one minute and vanished the next, I swear.’
Halsted sighed. ‘Look, Mr Van Bruen, your wife wasn’t with you when you entered the store.’
‘Yes she was! Why don’t you believe me?’
Halsted leaned forward. ‘Please, sir, you need to stay c--’
Van Bruen shot up from the chair. ‘No! I won’t stay calm. You’re not listening to me. None of you are listening to me!’ His eyes widened and coloured with irritation. ‘You’re all the damn same, all of you...’
This example uses pace and punchy sentences to create tension within the dialogue, together with sentences being interrupted and the inclusion of sudden movements from the main character, who reacts badly to the questioning. The shows the reader the emotions that simmer beneath the surface. Not only that, but it doesn’t resort to being over-dramatic. The reader could relate to the situation.
Dialogue, dramatic or otherwise, should always move the story forward and also reveal your characters. What the reader won’t learn about your characters in narrative, they will learn from your characters through dialogue.
The other thing you can do to manipulate the reader’s emotions and create tension and is to create obstacles to communication between characters. For instance, if character A is trying to get his point across about something extremely important, perhaps life changing, then provide resistance from character B or C; something that provides tension and frustration. For example:
‘You should at least look at the figures,’ Cole said.
‘I don’t need to look at figures. This business is just fine without your meddling,’ Davis said, unconcerned.
‘How can it be fine when it’s losing so much money?’ he shot back. ‘You can’t bury your head in the sand and hope for the best. You need to look at these figures because people’s jobs depend on it.’
Davis stood up. ‘I don’t need a jumped up little would-be accountant trying to tell me how to run my own damn business, otherwise you can find another job. Got that?’
Cole shrank beneath Davis’ shadow.
‘Now stop bothering me and get back to work...’
As the reader, you want Cole to get through to the stubborn Davis, but he’s thwarted.This is a common way for writers to create tension and drama in their dialogue, and again the reader will relate to this.
Dramatic dialogue needs drama and conflict and emotions to work. Without these ingredients, the dialogue will be flat and boring.
- Dramatic scenes require dramatic dialogue.
- Know your character’s motivations and desires – create obstacles in their conversations, get them passionate or frustrated or angry. Get the most from their dialogue.
- Emphasise speech – use tone and pitch and contrasting rhythms.
- Keep the dialogue short and snappy. People don’t chit-chat when in an emergency, neither should your characters.
- Emotions and tensions and conflict all create drama.
- Create immediacy with your reader – make them relate to the characters and their situation.
Next week: The trouble with your supporting characters