“Kelsey Jo Koberg,” mom bellowed,“Get in here this instant!”Dialogue can give a lot ofinformation about character, emotion,and mood.
1. Give it a purpose. Dialogue should advance the story, provide needed info, reveal character, etc.2. Keep it concise. Don‟t use 10 words to do the work of 5.3. Make it flow. It should sound effortless and spontaneous.4. People all look different, act in individual ways, and think differently. So they don‟t all sound the same.
Lisa had just gotten out of the car and was heading around the corner of the garage when she ran intoBrian. “Oh, you startled me. I wasn‟t expecting you here.” His face looked sort of pale and pinched. He‟sfound out, she thought. I finally broke it off, but I was too late.He said, “It‟s been a real day for expectations. Where were you? I‟ve been waiting here for an hour. Youdidn‟t leave a note or—”“I wasn‟t planning on going anywhere—” Which sounded like bullshit when she said it, and she knew it.She was wearing a navy dress with a fitted waist and a low neckline, which had been a gift from Kevin.Heels. Hose. Make-up. The last time Brian had seen her in make-up when they weren‟t on their way tochurch or a restaurant had been right after the second baby was born. Eight years ago? Yeah. About that.He raised an eyebrow. “I can see that.” Pure sarcasm. For a moment his face lost the pinched look, andshe saw suspicion in his eyes. “Where‟s your coat?”“I left the house in a hurry. I… um… my mother …”The pinched look was back around his eyes, and she stopped, suddenly frightened. He knew she hadn‟tbeen visiting her mother in the hospital. Maybe he‟d hired a detective to follow her. The sound of herheart pounding roared in her ears. If he really knew, she would lose everything. The boys. Brian. Herhome. Her friends.But he was saying, “The hospital reached you? God, I‟m sorry. That‟s why—”
Now the scared feeling was worse. Different. But worse. “The hospital?”“They called me when they couldn‟t get you.”“I don‟t understand.”“Your mother. You said —”The lie came easily, easier than the lies that had preceded it over the last three months, pouring out of her mouth withoutany effort on her part. She shivered and rubbed her arms and said, “I ran out to buy some flowers for her. She‟s been sodown.” Breast cancer and a modified mastectomy at fifty-eight. Mom was in the hospital doing chemo, and she wascoming through it like a trooper, but she really had been down. Not that Lisa had done much to cheer her up. She‟d hadher mind on… other things. No more of that, though.The suspicion was back in his eyes. “For three hours you‟ve been buying flowers?”“And then I drove around. I‟ve had… a lot on my mind. But I‟m fine now. Fine.”He looked a little sick. “You didn‟t go by the hospital?”“No.” She‟d been saving that for when she could look her mother in the eye again. No, mom, I‟m not cheating on myhusband. I‟m not cheating on my family. I‟m a good wife. A good mother. Now she could do that. “Look, I‟m freezing.Let‟s go inside. Why did the hospital call? Does the doctor need to talk to me about more tests?”He was shaking his head—no, no, no—and his eyes were as bleak as the day. “We have to go to the hospital.”
Her mother was being demanding again. She couldn‟t face that right now. Not after the scene withKevin. That had been ugly. Ugly. Never again, she promised herself. “I‟ve had a terrible—”He cut her off. “We have to go to the hospital. Now. The rest of your family is already there.”Everything shifted. He hadn‟t come home because he knew about the affair. He hadn‟t come homebecause the hospital had been trying to reach her about another of her mother‟s demanding snits.Everything she did to make things right, she had done too late. “Oh. Oh, God. Mom‟s all right,isn‟t she?” But the look on his face told her what she already knew. “Oh, Christ, she isn‟t. I‟mbeing punished… she‟s dead.”
Having a sense of natural speechpatterns is essential to good dialogue.Start to pay attention to theexpressions that people use and themusic of everyday conversation. Thisexercise asks you to do this moreformally, but generally speaking itshelpful to develop your ear by payingattention to the way people talk.
Dad winked at me.“When tomorrow comes,” he said, and he changed the subject to McNulty. “Mebbehe‟s there every Sunday morning,” he said. “I should try to get to talk to him, eh?”“Aye,” I said. “The Fire Eaters”
But dialogue should read like realspeech. How do you accomplish that?Alfred Hitchcock said that a goodstory was "life, with the dull partstaken out." This very much applies todialogue. A transcription of aconversation would be completelyboring to read. Edit out the fillerwords and unessential dialogue —that is, the dialogue that doesntcontribute to the plot in some way.
It should not be obvious to the readerthat theyre being fed important facts.Let the story unfold naturally. Youdont have to tell the readereverything up front, and you can trusthim or her to remember details fromearlier in the story.
Remind your reader that yourcharacters are physical human beingsby grounding their dialogue in thephysical world. Physical details alsohelp break up the words on the page:long periods of dialogue are easierfor the readers eye when broken upby description. (And vice versa, forthat matter.)
People don‟t typically stopeverything when they talk. Theyfidget. They keep washing the dishes.They pace. Don‟t forget that yourcharacters aren‟t static.
“What happened to sisterhood, Carol?” she complained. “Come on, give us a break.Surely there must be something you can tell me apart from „No comment‟.” “I‟m sorry, Ms. Burgess. The last thing your readers need to hear is ill-informed off-the-cuff speculation. As soon as I‟ve got anything concrete to say, I promise you‟ll bethe first to know.” Carol softened her words with a smile. She turned to walk away, but Penny grabbed the sleeve of her mac. “Off the record?”she pleaded. “Just for my guidance? So I don‟t end up writing something that makesme look like a pillock?” “The Mermaids Singing”
Veering too much beyond "hesaid/she said" only draws attention tothe tags — and you want the readersattention centered on your brilliantdialogue, not your ability to think ofsynonyms for "said."
“What do we do now?”Shadows from the single candle flickered on Heather‟s face. It masked the basement smellwith green apple. She rolled her eyes at me.“Nothing, Kristy. Just wait.”I sighed. I was sick of waiting. My arms, and my butt, were starting to hurt. I drummed myfingers impatiently on the plastic pointer thingy.“Stop it,” Heather hissed. “You‟ll make them mad.”“Make who mad?”“The spirits, stupid.”Right. The spirits. Like I really believed the spirits were going to talk to us on a piece ofParker Brothers cardboard.
Be aware of falling back onstereotypes, and use profanity andslang sparingly. All of these riskdistracting or alienating your reader.Anything that takes the reader out ofthe fictional world youre working sohard to create is not your friend. Readsome examples of how to achieve thetone you want without stereotypes,profanity, and slang.
Pay attention to why things work ordont work. Where are you taken outof the storys action? Where did youstop believing in a character? Or,alternatively, when did the characterreally jump off the page, and how diddialogue help accomplish that?
The rules for punctuating dialoguecan be confusing: many writers needhelp getting them right in thebeginning. Take some time to learnthe basics. A reader should get lost inyour prose — not feel lost trying tofollow your dialogue.
A good rule of thumb is that everytime a character speaks, it starts anew paragraph. However, if onecharacter speaks then performs anassociated action then speaks againlater, it can remain in the sameparagraph. You can also have mixedactions by more than one character inone paragraph, but not mixeddialogue.
John hovered in the doorway, wondering if he needed to wait for a hostess or just sitdown at the first table he could find. “Oh miss. . .” he said, trying to catch theuniformed blonde‟s eye. She ignored him. “Oh miss. . .” he tried again. “Yes!” John fought back an urge to salute. “What is it?” she snapped, looking at his fingernails. “I er, was wondering … er, nothing. Sorry. I‟ll go somewhere else.”