Monday, May 30, 2011

The Five Ingredients To A Good Story: Part Three - Dialogue

Conversations. We all have them. We know the power they have to make us feel uplifted, downtrodden, joyful or angry. But do we know the power conversation, or dialogue, can have in our writing? Basically, it can make or break our novels. Bad dialogue between characters can make our work seem unreal and lifeless.

So how do we make our dialogue come alive? If it seems flat, how do we give our characters distinct voices? I offer several tips below to help improve dialogue between characters, plus two short exercises as an aid in developing this in our writing.

Lastly, reading classic literature that has the gift of excellent dialogue helps us to see how this makes all the difference in making a work of fiction come alive for the reader.


1) What is unsaid is often more poignant than what is said. One common problem, especially with beginning writers, is that they have their characters prattle on and on as if they were in some giant therapy session. In real life people do not do this. Real people will tell bits and pieces about themselves as they live life with the people around them, instead of one huge monologue. All these bits and pieces tie together and by the end of the story they have formed a real person, just as if meeting a new acquaintance in your life. Having characters tell small amounts here and there have the added benefit of building suspense. They leave us hanging on their every word while we wait for more to be revealed.

2) Be historically accurate. So often, a historical novel will be ruined by having a character use language that would never have been used during that time period. This happens in movies all the time as well. For example, a character in Regency England would never use the word “okay” even though I have often seen this done in novels. This can be eliminated by completing accurate research so that characters speak in the era in which you are writing. Read historically accurate books that use the common verbiage of that day. But take heed, there is no need to go overboard and write so the modern reader will find your words cumbersome. Just be aware of the words the characters speak. Using modern slang in a historical work of fiction will not drawn in or captivate your reader into the time period in which you are writing.

3) Use dialect sparingly. This tip goes along with number two above. While you want to convey the feeling of the time period, you do not want your readers to get lost in the dialogue because they can’t interpret the dialect. In one of my books the character’s would have spoken in almost unrecognizable dialect. I knew I had to keep this to a minimum so I would not lose the reader. Let your critique partner be a good judge of this in your writing. If they have difficulty interpreting the conversation between your charcters, so will readers. Therefore, keep dialect to a minimum and use it only when it adds flair to the story and doesn’t distract the reader.


1) Be an eavesdropper. Not on others, but on your own conversations. While someone is talking to you analyze the way they talk, the sentence patterns and lengths. Notice how life is full of short scenes and then incorporate these same scenes between characters in your novels. Movies are also helpful, especially if they are set in the era you are writing in. But be careful, some dialogue in movies can be extremely artificial.

2) Have your dialogue read aloud. I’ve found that when someone else is reading my work aloud to me, I can really tell if my dialogue rings true to how I’m portraying my character. When I listen I can really “see” if the conversations my characters are having sound natural, funny, or intriguing.

There are countless great dialogue scenes found in classic literature. I have picked out two below. Notice the distinctions and variances in these two excerpts. The first is from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.”

       “Lady Dedlock, I have not yet been able to come to a decision satisfactory to myself, on the course before me. I am not clear what to do, or how to act next. I must request you, in the mean time, to keep your secret as you have kept it so long, and not to wonder that I keep it too.”
      He pauses, but she makes no reply.
     “Pardon me, Lady Dedlock. This is an important subject. Are you honoring me with your attention?”
     “I am.”
     “Thank you. I might have known it, from what I have seen of your strength of character. I ought not to have asked the question, but I have the habit of making sure of my ground, step by step, as I go on. The sole consideration in this unhappy case is Sir Leicester.”
    “Then why,” she asks in a low voice, and without removing her gloomy look from those distant stars, “do you detain me in his house?”
     “Because he is the consideration. Lady Dedlock, I have no occasion to tell you that Sir Leicester is a very proud man; that his reliance upon you is implicit; that the fall of that moon out of the sky, would not amaze him more than your fall from your high position as his wife.”
     She breathes quickly and heavily, but she stands as unflinchingly as ever he has seen her in the midst of her grandest company.
     “I declare to you, Lady Dedlock, that with anything short of this case that I have, I would as soon have hoped to root up, by means of my own strength and my own hands, the oldest tree on this estate, as to shake your hold upon Sir Leicester, and Sir Leicester’s trust and confidence in you. And even now, with this case, I hesitate. Not that he could doubt, (that, even with him, is impossible), but that nothing can prepare him for the blow.”
    “Not my flight?” she returned. “Think of it again.”
     “Your flight, Lady Dedlock, would spread the whole truth, and a hundred times 
the whole truth, far and wide. It would be impossible to save the family credit for a day. It is not to be thought of.”

The next is from Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind.”

     "Oh, yes! What most people don't seem to realize is that there is just as much money to be made out of the wreckage of a civilization as from the upbuilding of one."
     "And what does all that mean?"

     "Your family, and my family, and everyone here tonight made their money out of changing a wilderness into a civilization. That's empire building. There's good money in empire building. But, there's more in empire wrecking."
     "What empire are you talking about?"
     "This empire we're living in--the South--the Confederacy--the Cotton Kingdom--it's breaking up right under our feet. Only most fools won't see it and take advantage of the situation created by the collapse. I'm making my fortune out of the wreckage."
     "Then you really think we're going to get licked?"
     "Yes. Why be an ostrich?"
      "Oh, dear, it bores me to talk about such. Don't you ever say pretty things, Captain Butler?"
      "Would it please you if I said your eyes were twin goldfish bowls filled to the brim with the clearest green water and that when the fish swim to the top, as they are doing now, you are terribly charming?"

Just from these short snapshots of conversation we feel the tone of the characters. We are drawn into their company. As more dialogue continues throughout the book we fall more and more into the characters world. Both of these examples are portraying a different period in history, and yet, neither one loses the reader with excessive dialect or archaic phrases.

Writing good dialogue is a skill that one does not accomplish overnight. As writers, there is probably always room for improvement in this technique. Listening to good conversations and reading good literature, both old and new, can aid us in this achievement.

Lastly, and most importantly, as Christian writers we are writing for God’s glory. May all of our dialogue be pleasing and acceptable to Him.

Can you think of a particular scene of good dialogue that really inspired you??

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