07 October 2010

Make or Break Dialogue

Dialogue can make or break a story. Three ways to "break" a story with dialogue are:

1. Make most of the story dialogue. If the story reads like you are overhearing a long conversation between two characters, beware. This has the effect of distancing the reader from the story, taking action off stage, and minimizing setting details.

2. Including no or minimal dialogue. If you scan through a story and don't see any quotation marks, it could be a sign that there is too much narrative and not enough action.

3. Meaningless dialogue. We hear and engage in meaningless dialogue every day: "Hi, how are you?" "Fine. And you?" I'm good. Nice weather." "Yup. Really sunny." We're bored enough engaging in these interactions in real life--we don't want to experience again via a short story.

Three ways dialogue can "make" a story:

1. Intrigue. A character says something that creates conflict, establishes a mystery, or give a subtle clue about how their world works.

2. Insight. The dialogue reveals something about a character's goals, morals, or (important) backstory.

3. Originality. A character speaks with a unique rhythm or vocabulary. (This does not mean trying to write in an accent, which does not often work).


ssas said...

I would add that dialogue is one of the best places to show characters' agendas. The more their agendas conflict, the more interesting it will be. Fill each exchange with tension. Sometimes this comes across as each character almost having their own conversation! That's okay. Questions can be asked but not quite answered, or answered with other questions, characters can cut each other off and get angry. Each line is an opportunity to forward the story and show conflict and tension, so make them work for you!

lesleylsmith said...

Very good points, Editor Dave!

writtenwyrdd said...

You would think that this advice is common sense, but dialog IMO is the place where most writing seems to flail about ineffectively. (I'm talking about things I've critiqued, not published works, although some of that does still occur.)

What I think the problem is with new writers is the sense (a false one) that dialog needs to BE realistic rather than IMPLY reality. Those extra bits of verbiage that add nothing keep appearing in writing of new(er) writers until they get the sense that the dialog is in essence a means of communicating to readers what they should be paying attention to BECAUSE THE CHARACTERS ARE DOING SO.

Anyhow, that's my take on it. :)