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This article was first posted on November 3, 2018.

Engaging Dialogue


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The thing about having a dialogue with someone in real life, versus having a dialogue in written prose...is that, more times than not, prose demands a sense of purpose from its characters' interaction. There's very little room for fluff and small talk. The words being spoken have to actually 'say' something about the current situation and add to the story. It doesn't have to be forced, but I think it helps to know what your intentions are as a writer when adding dialogue to the scenes you have in your project.

Now, there are writers and critics that will tell you that every single spoken word by your characters should have some significant impact on the overall story, and if not, it should be erased. I, personally, am not that strict on the characters in my own stories. Sometimes my characters just like to shoot the shit for a while. I think that's fine. But that doesn't mean that they're conversations are completely purposeless. They are necessary for the story, they just aren't directly used to move the plot forward in any certain direction. Those conversations serve another purpose. A purpose that I think is important when it comes to telling a good tale.

So this week, we're not just talking about dialogue...but engaging dialogue. Dialogue that accompanies your story and plot and characters in such a way that it can elevate your project as a whole, and keep readers glued to the screen.

I truly believe that dialogue should feel natural and spontaneous in a story. It should sound like the kind of conversation that two average strangers could be having on a bus, or on any random street corner. And depending on who's having that conversation, there might be a few jokes told, some witty back and forth, maybe some wisdom passed from one character to another. That's normal enough. But every conversation doesn't have to have some sort of great meaning, emotional weight, or some deep sense of gravitas, in order to work in your writing. In fact, if every sentence spoken between your characters did that...it would come off as stiff and unrealistic. People don't talk like that. Sometimes, you just see a familiar face and say, "Hey, what's up? How are you?" And the answer is, "Fine! How about you?" And that's all there is to it. The problem with adding this natural dialogue to your writing is that it can sometimes slow the pace of your story way down if you let it linger on for too long without giving your readers a reason to care about this casual chit chat. Nobody wants to read about two people discussing the weather for a page and a half. Not if it doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the story. Does that mean you can't discuss the weather in your story? No. You just have to give it purpose. Why is this happening? Let your audience know the subtext of this conversation and why they need to keep paying attention.

Using the 'weather' example... If two, well established, characters are on a mission to steal a car from a mob boss...WHY in the name of all that is holy are they talking about whether or not it's going to rain??? Nooooo! What am I reading? SKIP!

However...if the tools they're using to steal said car depend on whether or not it rains when the heist goes down...that's a factor. It's a part of the story. Let the readers know that. NOW that conversation has meaning.

Or...let's say that you have a really shy, closeted, teenager talking to the boy of his dreams for the first time. Maybe they're in an elevator together, and the weather forecast is the only thing he can come up with to talk to this stunning beauty next to him. Again...it's a mundane conversation, but it's given depth and meaning through the character interaction and the situation at hand. If done right, you can make the most boring dialogue engaging to your audience through the subtext alone.

Basically, meaningful dialogue can have one of three main objectives. To set the tone of the scene, to introduce certain personality traits of your characters, or to advance the plot of the story by delivering information that will be needed later. So...let's talk about that first one.

Setting the tone for your scene through dialogue is all about how you word it. Maybe there's some flirtatious tension going on. Maybe there's some serious conflict happening. Maybe it's a scene of all out chaos, or maybe it's a scene of total indifference. The way your characters relate to one another speaks volumes beyond the actual dialogue. Two people who are hostile toward one another may throw a few passive aggressive comments in each other's direction. Two people nervous around one another may stutter or pause, or say something that they immediately regret once the sound has left their mouths. Characters who are the best of friends may joke around and give each other shit in a playful way. The thing is...you can create an atmosphere for the scene through the dialogue being shared by the characters at your disposal. You can let the reader know whether this is going to be a lighthearted scene, or a dramatic scene. You can give them cues about an instant rivalry and play up the animosity between the two people speaking. While the conversation itself may be simple and plain, the 'feel' of it can draw your readers into the scene and give them a sense of presence within the scene itself. What should they be feeling right now? Why did they say what they just said? And why did they say it that way? Your readers are smart, and they're emotionally involved in what's going on. So set the stage, give them some details, and let them know how light or how dark the scene is by the dialogue that you give them to work with and the context flowing behind it.

The second method involves displaying the personality traits of the characters involved. You guys might remember my article on "Show, Don't Tell". This is exactly what I mean by that. Who is your character (whichever character you're focusing on at the moment)? Are they extroverted and optimistic? A simple block of dialogue with them talking about sunny days and double rainbows can paint that picture for your readers. It might not have anything to do with the main plot or advance the story any further from where it is, currently...but it clearly expresses the attitudes and motivations of one of your main characters, which...in my opinion..is just as important, if not more so. Use your dialogue as a tool to allow your characters to show the audience who they are as a person. Maybe they're a hopeless romantic. Maybe they're a standoffish rebel. Maybe they're an insecure jerk, or a lovable shy guy. The words they use and the things they say can convey a clear message to your readers and give them a sense of who you characters are without you having to explain it to them later.

The third method? Moving the plot forward. Now...with this one, I would warn all writers that it's difficult to do this without losing site of the 'tone' and 'character trait' parts of the equation. I believe that moving the plot forward comes from a combination of all three sides of this. You definitely want to provide new information and progress towards the finale that you're looking to reach by the end of your project...but if you lose sight of tone and character in the meanwhile? The story can easily fall apart. Try to keep having your protagonist or love interest 'break character' by suddenly saying something that they would never say normally, just for the sake of advancing the plot. Don't change the tone of your story from something happy and comical to something dark and disturbing, simply because you want to jump into the tragic parts of your story. Keep things smooth. Flow. Being a good writer, I think, is all about the choices you make. And how readers react to those choices as the story unfolds. The idea is to have your audience follow you on a journey. Not for you to push an emotional 'agenda'. I know you have an idea in mind for how the story is going to go and how you want it to end...but use some finesse. Hehehe! Have patience. Any driver knows what happens when you take a sharp curve too quickly. Ease into it. Have faith in your readers. They're with you. Lead them in the right direction, but don't suddenly sucker punch them with dialogue that doesn't fit, simply because you want to jump to the next step. Keep things consistent. I've learned that it reads better in the long run.

Remember...engaging dialogue comes from engaging people, and engaging situations. If you're writing, and there's a voice in the back of your mind that says, "I should probably add some dialogue to this scene"...ask yourself why? If you can't come up with a better answer than 'because...' then don't do it. Why are they talking? Who are they talking to? What will this add to the story, plot, character, tone, or theme, of the story? Don't just have people talk when they have nothing to say. If this becomes a part of your story, readers won't be able to decide what conversations are important to think about or remember for later...and which ones are just fluff for the sake of fictional mumbling. Pick your moments wisely, and make sure that every conversation is actually 'saying' something...even when it appears to be saying nothing.

Hehehe, easier said than done. I know. But nothing can teach you the difference like practice. So, you know...PRACTICE!

Alrighty then, I know this was a short one this week, but there isn't really a whole lot that I can say in terms of advice for this topic! Every author is different. We all have our own methods, ideas, and our own experiences with writing in the past to draw from when it comes to getting the desired effect. I can't guide anybody in the right direction, because there IS no right direction! I can only tell you what I've encountered so far, and what feels comfortable for me. So find your own version of these little lessons while writing your own stuff. And if you find little tidbits of your own along the way? Share it with me! Hehehe! I'm still learning too!

Take care! I hope this helps! And I'll seezya soon with more!

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  • Site Administrator

Great article Comsie.  It is sometimes difficult to balance banter and moving the story along.  An issue I'm dealing with editing right this moment. lol.

 

 

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  • Site Administrator

Excellent article, Comsie! Last week I was helping my small group of 5th graders as they wrote a narrative story using dialogue and also looked for a single character trait exposed through dialogue in their 20 minutes of daily reading for homework each day for their Friday RACE paragraph writing assignment (This character's trait is 'such' shown by this scene setting and "exact quote" on page #, repeat with 2 more quotes, final sentence sums up why those 3 pieces of evidence/quotes prove the reasoning that 'such' is the character's trait.")

 

Anyway, one of the things I explained to them about learning how to expertly write dialogue is that first you must learn how to be an expert listener. (*snorts* Hard for ANY kid!) But, in truth, we must be observers of the world around us at all times. Authors are all eavesdroppers and peeping toms and tomasinas because if we don't pay attention to how real people move, talk, and interact, then our characters won't come off as real people (even if they aren't really people) in a story. 

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I like using dialogue to help establish a character's personality.  It's easier than writing two or three paragraphs of a character's inner thinking all the time.  Having them speak and express themselves can go a long way with less effort.

 

If I were to add anything to this article, it would be that no character stands in place and delivers their lines.  They're usually sitting or doing something.  If it's dialogue taking place in the kitchen between two characters, it's a good hunch that they're doing something at the same time they're speaking to each other.  Weaving their actions, words and the tone and expression on their faces can paint a vivid picture that if done well, will put the reader right there in the room with the characters.

 

And unnecessary dialogue (stuff that isn't important and would slow down the story) could be boiled down to a paragraph giving the general idea of what the characters discussed.  And what exactly is it?  I say it's like porn.  You know it when you see it.

 

Love reading your articles.  Always looking forward to the next one.

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I love this article. Dialogue is hugely important to me when reading or writing fiction. When it's poor it's like watching bad actors stumbling their way through an otherwise plausible script. It becomes unbelievable and the connection to the viewer or reader is lost. This is usually the point where I stop reading or switch channels, no matter how decent the story line. A writer needs to take on the character of the person who's talking, almost in the same way as an actor, and unless you're writing about yourself, it's not easy.

This is where a good beta reader can be a useful addition to your team.

I'm enjoying reading these articles again. It was a good idea to re-post them.  

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