He Said/She Said - How Do You Make Dialogue Compelling – Part 2

Compelling – or effective – dialogue is an essential ingredient in every story because it not only helps to tell the story, it moved it along, it imparts necessary information for the reader, it reveals characterisation and it’s a great way to create conflict and drama.

There are a number of ways writers can do this.

A Sense of Realism

One of the best ways to involve the reader is to give the dialogue a sense of realism. But what does that mean, exactly?

By ‘realism’, there is an expectation from the reader that dialogue will reflect real speech to a degree.  So writers can use dialect or accented words, they can use ‘ums’ or ‘ers’, or even hesitations, stutters, or when dialogue is abruptly cut off by interruptions etc., as per these examples:

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I...I tried not to...’
‘Er, I don’t honestly know,’ he replied.
‘He ‘bin around these parts, ya’ll.’
‘And to think I ever wan--’

The rule of thumb is simple - don’t overuse them to the point that they become a distraction and therefore have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to create. Use them when the situation requires it.

By observing and listening to real conversations, writers will gain a better understanding of their structure, dialect and the dynamic between speakers which will help provide a realistic sounding dialogue that will blend perfectly with the story.

In addition to this, a sense of realism comes by way of who your characters are. People have different ways of talking, whether it’s a generational thing, a cultural thing, a certain social demographic - so an old man in his eighties will speak very differently to a know-it-all teenager. Jamaicans, for instance, have their own way of talking, their own speech patterns, compared to a native English speaker.  Someone from the upper class will speak more eruditely than someone from a local council estate, and so on.

Again, don’t overdo it, but writers can show these cultural, social and generational differences in dialogue to make it more realistic.

Dialogue Must Move the Story Forward

In order for dialogue to move the story forward, it must serve a purpose. If two characters are having a chit-chat over the garden fence about flowers and the weather, there is no purpose to the conversation and it isn’t moving the story forward. It will bore the reader.

Dialogue creates tension and conflict, it can help escalate action, it can tease with revelation and it can inform the reader by dropping hints or providing context. In other words, every bit of the dialogue serves a purpose; don’t create conversation without purpose or reasoning behind it. Make it count – make it interesting.

If dialogue doesn’t reveal something new or interesting to the reader, then get rid of it.

Action Before Dialogue

This mantra is very effective because it tells the writer to attribute action prior to the dialogue, something that new writers don’t always observe. Instead they tell the reader the action after the character has said it, for instance:

‘Hello?’ she said, picking up the phone.

This is a common mistake. No one says hello before they pick up their phone. This is why action before dialogue makes it clear to the reader and avoids these confusions and ambiguities, for example:

John eyes became speculative. ‘Are you sure about that?’

Amy picked up the envelope. ‘I suppose I am afraid of what it says...’

This doesn’t and won’t apply to every snippet of dialogue, but it does apply to the sequence of actions of your characters. So think about what they’re doing. Would their actions come before or after the dialogue?

Getting that right makes all the difference.

Dialogue Beats

Dialogue beats refer to the action that writers insert between dialogue, which is another reflection of how real speech works. It’s another way to break up long sections of dialogue to make it interesting to the reader, and is another way to reveal characteristics and hints, for example:

‘You said you couldn’t make the meeting,’ John said. He eyed her over the rim of his coffee cup, careful not to let his expression show. ‘That’s why I presented it...’

The example shows how John really feels as he surreptitiously eyes the other character over his coffee cup. This is a hint to the character’s true emotions.  Here’s another example of dialogue beats:

Look, if he wants to come and do it, I’m not gonna stop him,’ she said. She pushed her salad around her plate, but didn’t eat. ‘It’s not like I can prevent him anyway...’

This beat between the dialogue reveals how the character feels about the situation – she plays with her food but doesn’t eat it, show her anxiety is apparent. And all it needed was a line of narrative to provide the reader with more than line after line of dialogue.

Dialogue is far more compelling when written this way.

Keep it Concise

The most interesting dialogue is delivered in small amounts. There’s nothing more off-putting for readers than being confronted by huge chunks of dialogue, which is generally the moment they skip it and move on.

In real life day to day conversations we speak no more than a few seconds at a time, which would equate to a line of dialogue. There might be an occasion where one person speaks for a minute of two if they’re explaining something, but generally, conversations are short and to the point.

Character dialogue should be no different. Just get to the point, keep it brief and move the story forward.

Resist the Urge to Explain

New writers do this sometimes. They force information into the dialogue to have characters tell one another things they would normally know or understand, but it’s done for the benefit of the reader, who isn’t as stupid as the writer thinks, for instance:

‘But if you don’t disarm the device, it will take out this entire block...’

‘It’s no good, without the crystals, the door won’t open and we won’t be able to retrieve the scrolls that will prevent worldwide disaster...’

Dialogue doesn’t need obvious exposition. Readers are smart enough to understand the story without being beaten over the head with heavy-handed exposition that serves no purpose.

The best way to test your dialogue and how compelling it is – read it aloud. Does it sound fake and contrived? Does it patronise the reader with stuff they are smart enough to know? Is it short and concise? Does it reveal character and hints? Does it feel real

Effective dialogue takes a while to master, but eventually it comes naturally to writers. It just needs time and attention.


Next week: Writing from Experience


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