Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel or short story. It provides plot advancement, character development, and action or movement. In other words, it brings the story to life.
A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description.
Through dialogue we discover character traits about the various people who populate our stories. How a person speaks and acts while talking says a lot more about him or her than mere words.
And dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You’re eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you.
In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters…intimately.
First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.
Write a biography of your main characters, whether it’s a paragraph or a page, describe who they are, where they came from, their background. If you are having difficulty, start with a “stock character” straight from central casting. If you want a villain, pick a character from some old movie, like Edward G. Robinson, and than make him your own creation. You can always find a picture in a magazine that fits the type of person you want in a particular role. Cut the picture out and devise a background for him or her.
Add character traits (Steve Brewer’s Buddy character in Lonely Street talks with a lisp), physical attributes (Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Grey is a plus-size paralegal), and limitations (Jeffery Deaver’s quadriplegic cop, Lincoln Rhyme, in The Bone Collector) to make each memorable.
Even the name you give a character can make a difference. A man called Ivan is probably Russian. A bouncer in a bar would more convincingly be called Buster rather than Orville. Christa Faust named her former X-rated movie star Angel Dare in her novel, Money Shot.
Avoid creating a cast of characters with a run of names like: Mary, Margaret, Martha, Maggie, Maisie, Millie, Molly, Mona, Myrna, Mildred, and Mergatroid…unless you are doing it for fun. Make a list of each proper name used (cities and streets, too) to make sure you aren’t beginning each name with the same letter, or you might end up with a sentence like this: Sadie and Sue from Sarasota spent Saturdays working at the soda shop on Sycamore Street.
Readers will respond emotionally or viscerally to characters who have flaws, so make them vulnerable (Sherlock Holmes’ 7% addiction to cocaine), multifaceted (Riggs in Lethal Weapon), and psychologically different (Norman Bates in Psycho).
But most importantly, give each character who trods the pages of your story a goal. Without a purpose, why have the character in your story? And the person who has the strongest goal is your villain, the person who wants to stop your protagonist from achieving their goal.
One more thing about character, make at least one person in your story likeable: someone to identify with and cheer for. And remember, a character too perfect, too clever, too humble, or too pitiful isn’t likeable.
If you know your characters, you can find their individual voice, even if the character isn’t human. For instance, Bruce Cook (writing as Brant Randall) in his book, Blood Harvest, gives voices to both a dog and a crow, and both are done superbly.
Dialogue is the illusion of conversation. Eavesdrop on people, from the couple chatting in the grocery line to someone on his or her cell phone. Unless they’re planning the next Brinks robbery, the conversation will probably be ordinary at best, and more likely – boring.
If you know your characters well, you can get inside their skin (write that biography) and discover their words and actions. Dialogue performs a function like a costume, and if written well, it enhances your characters, advances the plot, and gets the reader up close and personal with the people you have created.
Where a character was “born,” went to school, and his neighborhood will dictate his speech pattern, whether it’s a Southern drawl, a French accent, or a gangsta rapper from the ‘hood.’
Good dialogue always adds something to the plot, whether it builds tension, imparts needed information to the other characters (and the reader), or even slows down the pace when you need a breather.
Dialogue also sets the stage by creating mood (a whispered message) or sets the tone (a knock-down drag-out verbal brawl). And dueling dialogue between opposing characters brings the reader right into the action. But note, as the argument gets more heated, the length of the sentences gets shorter.
After you have written your scene, read it aloud or have someone else read it to you, or use one of the many software programs that reads your work back to you. It will make a huge difference. You will hear things you didn’t know you wrote (both good and bad) and you will pick up the redundancies and misused words. And you just might find out how good you are at writing dialogue.
Make a few of your characters sound different by giving them an accent (Did y’all get another dawg?), a speech pattern (like, ya know, a teenager’s, like, special way of, like, speaking), an interesting phrase unique to one person (Who loves ya, baby?), and word choices (Fiddle-de-dee).
Let your dialogue work harder by adding action tags to the usual he said/she said. Which is more interesting: “Go ahead and date my ex-wife,” he shouted. vs. “Go ahead, date my ex-wife,” he said, slamming his fist into the wall. Or have a character twirl her hair (bored), yawn (really bored), or grind a cigarette into someone’s hand (shall we say, piqued?) Even not saying something speaks volumes: “I knew you wouldn’t care if I left you,” he said. She bit her lip.
Just make sure somebody (a character or the reader) learns something new during any conversation. If there is no purpose to the dialogue, rewrite it or dump it.
Let your dialogue work for you. It has a lot to say.
A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool has one published book, Media Justice, and several short stories in anthologies, LAndmarked for Murder and Little Sisters Volume 1. She is currently the Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles, and a member of Mystery Writers of America. Her latest short story appears in the anthology, Dying in a Winter Wonderland, which was voted one of the Top Ten of Softcover Books as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA) of 2008.