After free write, I begin the creative writing classes I teach with a question – what is stopping you from writing this week? As poets, novelists, journalist, short story tellers and everything in between, we run across a myriad of unique and ever-evolving challenges on the path toward our best stories and discussing what those challenges are is a great way to learn from other writers and find a way through.
One of my students this past week, had a particularly astute question, especially for a young author.
“How do I make my character’s dialogue not feel like it’s in a white, blank room?”
Dialogue comes naturally for some and last for others, but it’s one of the most important parts of any book and I thought I’d touch upon a few of the most effective ways to nail relatable, informative and readable dialogue.
Use Action Tags
To answer my student’s question, action tags are a simple and effective way to place a conversation in a setting. For example:
“Your mother called today,” Sara said. “She wants to talk.”
“Your mother called today.” Sara took the teapot off the stove and turned for the far cabinets in search of a clean mug. From behind the dark wood of the cupboard door, she continued, “she wants to talk.”
Action tags don’t just help to ground the conversation in a scene, but they also make the conversation much more readable. While we will have certain scenes with line after line of dialogue–think phonecalls–stories are much easier to read when they’re set in a time and place. Good action tags also help to keep the scene moving and can provide insight into the characters’ behaviors and thoughts.
Use Different Voices
We all speak differently because we are all different. I tend to swear without thinking about it and I’ve found that I use three increasingly hyperbolic adjectives when I get passionate or excited about something. My partner, on the other hand, uses as few words as possible and relies on humor to get his points across.
The way your characters communicate should be so specific to them that you can tell who’s speaking without tags. That said, don’t overindulge in accents or stereotypes. Too much of a good thing can make a story unreadable.
Don’t Write Exactly How You Speak
It can be tempting to make the dialogue sound as natural as possible by writing the way people speak. The truth is, you want to write the way people would speak if every single thing we said was vital to the course of our lives. I recently read a book where the dialogue went a little something like this.
“How do you like your coffee?”
“None for me, thank you.”
“Thank you. Should I leave the pot out?”
“For later, yes.”
Yes, this is a conversation you could and very likely will have over the course of your life, but it is not one that should be taking up the pages of your story unless you have very good reason for it. If your heroine is sitting in the drawing room and counting every second tick by on the grandfather clock, she may be drowning in the tedium of conversations like this one. For the most part, however, if it can be better performed outside of the dialogue, then do so.
He poured coffee for Sara and left the pot out on the table
See how much better that is?
Avoid Infodumps and Exposition
Yes, at some point we need to get the information into the story, that’s true. But we glean information every day without it coming out as a monologue from our wife or parent. It’s important to find a way to weave the dialogue with the rest of your story. For example.
“Vampires can’t go out in the day,” Madeline said. “You know that.”
“I also know that vampires appear in nearly every culture,” I replied. “They’re historically based on the Stoker version of Dracula, have several potential weaknesses, including beheading, daylight, garlic and stakes and their reflections used to be invisible because mirrors were once produced with silver backing.”
“Vampires can’t go out in the day,” Madeline said. “You know that.”
I did know that. After ten long years of studying the lore, I knew a lot more than that–I knew their weaknesses, the way their skin burned at the touch of a cross and how I’d be better off with a sharpened wooden stake than the rifle in my closet, should one of them ever get near enough that I could see the fangs once invisible to their own eyes in the reflection of a silver-backed mirror.
“The sun will go down soon enough,” I replied.
Not only are we exposed to more of the character’s history and background, but the dialogue serves a far more dramatic role than a history lesson. The sun will go down soon enough is much stronger than something you’ll find in a lit essay. Strong characterization and scene setting will help you to find the right balance between what is said in dialogue and what isn’t.
Don’t Be Afraid to Summarize
This is particularly relevant if your audience already knows all the information your character is about to share. When revealing something new, chances are good you’ll want more dialogue for dramatic and pacing purposes, but if your character–and therefore your reader–already have the important bits, you don’t want to bore them by repeating it.
I told Madeline of what I had seen by the shed, of the fear that had grabbed me by the throat and nearly gotten me killed, of the monsters and the stench of death and the way the shadows had come alive. I told her everything and still, I barely believe it myself.
In this circumstance, the narrator is telling of an experience the reader has recently read. By summarizing it we, 1) avoid repetition and 2) get more insight into how the character is feeling about what she has to say.
You can also summarize what would be said in the text similar to the way it’s done above, sharing the information in conversation but not dialogue.
“The town,” I explained, “was founded during the Gold Rush.” It had been a time of prosperity and anticipation, and houses, taverns, and barns had gone up faster than the wildfires that sometimes raged the plains. Folks had come in from every city on the east coast, dreaming of a better life.
The afternoon turned to night as I told her the long, sordid tale of this sad town and its mysteries, of the spirits and devils and the men who howled by the moon, hours of stories, and she didn’t stop me once.
By summarizing, you’re adding the character’s voice into the scene, set with a line of dialogue, but not taken up by it.
Do I Know You?
If it’s possible, try to listen to a child speak. One of the students in my class this afternoon provided the perfect example.
“And Natasha told Miller and Miller started to cry because he didn’t study for the math test, but Mrs. O’Hansan said April Fool’s!”
I don’t know who Natasha, Miller or Mrs. O’Hansan are. But that didn’t stop this student from telling his story and effectively enough that I knew who each of the important characters were by the end.
When we write scenes, we don’t want our characters to be explaining things they already know or the person they’re speaking with already knows. Bringing ignorant characters into a scene makes it easier, because your speaker will be explaining to them, as well as the reader, but what about characters who already know everything about each other?
“My brother Jonathan ran away again,” Lily said.
An okay-enough sentence, assuming that Lily is talking to someone who doesn’t know her brother. But if the person does know her brother, why is she qualifying his name?
Lily lay back in the grass and watched through the blooms of the cherry blossom tree as Sloan draped an arm and a leg over each side of a sturdy-looking branch.
“Jonathan ran away again,” she said on a sigh, catching her best friend’s eye like a moving patch of blue sky between soft pink clouds.
“Is he coming back?” Sloan asked, resting her head on the branch like a cherub from an old painting.
Lily shrugged against the cool grass. “You know my brother as well as I do,” she said.
Sloan just shook her head. “That is to say, not much at all.”
Referencing relationships, moments shared, family events, school outings, etc, is a far more effective and natural way to provide the information than to qualify the person, place or thing.
Dialogue is a fickle mistress and what works for one scene, character or story may not work for another. There are two small pieces of advice I can leave you with that will prove effective time and again.
Read your dialogue out loud. Is that what we sound like when we speak?
Eavesdrop on every conversation you can. (Don’t pretend you don’t already do it…) What do you notice? How is the most important information shared?
Our words don’t exist in a blank, white room. Do your best to give them the space and time and history they deserve–your story will thank you for it.