What You Say? Using Dialogue to Strengthen Your Stories
By Lisabet Sarai
It may be a bit presumptuous for me to write a craft-focused article about dialogue. Creating engaging, lively, believable conversations has never been one of my strong points. I did a major revision of my first novel a few months ago. I found the dialogue I wrote back in 1999 to be truly cringe-worthy. All the characters speak in full sentences, rarely employing contractions. They use each other’s names far more frequently than people do in real life. There are no pauses, no hesitations, no interruptions. As a result, the dialogue feels stiff, awkward and unrealistic.
I’ve learned a great deal since then, however. Some reviewers of my most recent novel, The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, have explicitly commented on the authenticity of the interactions between my hero and heroine. I’ve become far more conscious of the entire issue of dialogue, and more aware of my own weaknesses. In addition, I’ve come to understand the important roles dialogue can play in strengthening the story as a whole.
Dialogue can reveal and develop your characters.
Your readers learn a great deal about a character from what she says, as well as how she says it. Speech reveals education level, cultural background, and mood, in addition to shining light on the relationship between the partners in a conversation. What sort of vocabulary and sentence structure does the character use? What level of formality? How long are the typical sentences? Are there profanities expletives, emotional outbursts? Endearments? What about words and phrases like “maybe”, “in my opinion”, “you might not agree but” that indicate a power differential or a lack of confidence?
Here’s an example from “Fortune’s Fool”, by Robert Buckley (who is an absolute master of dialogue):
“Oh, Maleek, oh, can you do me a big favor, Oh, please, please, please …?”
“Tianna, baby, I’m on my break and I’ve done all the favors I’m doing for you for one week.”
She grabbed his meaty arm and nuzzled her delicate chin in the hollow of his massive biceps. “Oh, Maleek, honey, just this one favor?”
Damn, she’s good, I thought. Poor Maleek didn’t stand a chance.
“Ain’t no such thing as one favor with you, Tianna. Okay, what you want?”
“Take this guy up to CT scan for me so I can go see Terry Hanchuck.”
Maleek made a face and whined, “Oh, what you want to bother with that chump for?”
Tianna just smiled, her green eyes gleaming. Maleek just shrugged his shoulders, took hold of the gurney and guided it and its passenger onto the elevator as Tianna bolted away like a fawn.
Now Maleek was muttering under his breath.
“You hear anything about Hanchuck?” I asked him.
“Huh? Ah, well, sir, a friend told me his arm’s broken in four places. Looks like his career might be finished.”
“I guess he shouldn’t have disrespected Mr. Bubba Washington.”
Maleek’s face broadened into the widest smile I could imagine on a human. “Damn,” he said, “I thought I was the only one who thought like that in this town.”
“Serves the prick right,” I said. “Maybe he’ll have to get a real job now, like cleaning out pay toilets.”
Maleek’s smile became even broader and brighter. When we got to CT scan he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Be cool, man.”
After reading this snippet, I’ll bet you can tell me quite a bit about Tianna’s, Maleek’s and the narrator’s ethnicity, power relations, and personality. Tianna and Maleek are minor characters, but the effective dialogue brings them to life.
Dialogue can reveal history and advance the plot.
Novice authors have a tendency to write long passages of description or back story, which interfere with the forward motion of the narrative. Dialogue provides an effective alternative. Characters can mention past events as part of a conversation, seamlessly weaving back story into the current action. They can also comment on the environment or the appearance of another character, helping readers to visualize what’s going on in a more natural and integrated way.
Furthermore, speech is action. Conversations can generate or resolve conflicts, changing relationships or exposing secrets. Here’s an example from the story “El Pimientero”, by C. Sanchez-Garcia:
I picked up the pepper grinder and ran my finger over the black signature scrawled on the bottom. I am looking, I said to myself, with knowledge, at the autograph of a man who knows what she looks like naked. A man who has had his dick in her. A man who has fucked her. And then I knew who he was—who he really was.
“Doña , tell me about your first time.”
She began dropping pieces of okra into the oil. She stirred them with a fork.
“May I know?”
“I suppose.” She glanced at me sideways. “But only because it’s you. It’s between us.”
“How old were you?”
“Younger than you.”
“How did it happen?”
She watched the okra frying for a moment, then put down the fork. “In my father’s house.”
“Tell me please. What was it like?”
“We had a guest. He had been a friend of my father’s for many years. He was working in the movies, but he wasn’t famous then, not yet. But you knew he would be. His name was Gabriel.”
“He made love to you? How?”
“In the kitchen, just like this.”
She put down the fork and leaned a little on the stove, looking me over, that wicked twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t think people fuck each other in the kitchen? The kitchen is a good place to fuck.”
The story of Doña Soledad’s first lover helps the reader to understand who she is and why she behaves as she does. It also foreshadows her encounter with the much younger narrator.
Dialogue can hook the reader.
I really admire authors who can write “snappy” dialogue—conversations that are more than realistic, conversations that make me laugh or yearn, that make me want to read more. Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum mystery series, has this skill. I am seriously jealous.
Recently I hosted romance author Amy Armstrong at my blog. The excerpt she provided, from her paranormal novella A Hellhound in Hollywood, was so lively and funny that I went out and bought a copy of the book. I rarely do that. But she had me hooked. Here’s an example:
“You wouldn’t shoot me,” he said smugly, briefly glancing at the gun, his mouth twisting into a smirk. “And what’s more, you couldn’t.”
Now see? That pissed me off and I forgot about the instant attraction I felt toward him.
“Oh, I could,” I assured him. “And each time you open your mouth, it gets more and more likely that I will.”
He chuckled again, and this time, able to see the movement on his lips as well as hear the sound, produced an even stronger reaction in me. Arousal flooded my system. The masculinity that oozed out of him caused my pulse to accelerate and I was pretty sure my heart was trying
to beat its way out of my chest.
“You couldn’t,” he repeated. “You want to know why?”
I gritted my teeth. “Humor me.”
“Because the safety is on, and even if you did somehow get it off before I managed to get the gun out of your hand, you wouldn’t risk losing your job by shooting a fellow hunter.”
“A fellow…what?” I cocked my head to one side and lowered the gun a little. “You’re kidding me.”
I was usually great at sniffing out a lie, but I didn’t detect one.
That was a relief. For some strange reason, I didn’t want this beautiful man to turn out to be a liar. Arrogant jerk was bad enough.
A grin was his only reply—a really sexy grin—but I pretended not to notice it and continued to scowl at him.
“How do you know I’m a hunter?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Only hunters hang around in alleyways in the dead of night.”
“Or hookers,” he mused.
I was so furious that my glare, already frosty, must have turned glacial.
“Drug addicts or…”
“Okay, I get it. I get it. Good call.”
“Besides, you’re carrying a stake.”
I really wish I could write dialogue that could sell books with a single excerpt!
How can you write effective dialogue?
So here I am, five pages into this essay, and finally getting to the meat of my topic! I wish I could say I knew the secret to writing great conversations, like the ones I’ve quoted. However, all I can offer are some general recommendations, based on my own experience.
Listen to the way people really talk. Listen to people on the street, people on the radio, on TV and in the movies. Eavesdrop in coffee shops. Pay attention to the rhythm of real speech. Try to internalize it. I’ve found that my best dialogue comes when I “hear” my characters in my head and transcribe their conversations.
Allow your characters to pause and to interrupt one another. Real conversations are messy things. You don’t want to transcribe every “uh” and “um”, but used judiciously, this sort of expression can make your dialogue more realistic.
Avoid dialect, especially if it requires non-standard spellings or excessive contractions. To capture ethnicity, use word choice or word order. For instance, Bob Buckley’s excerpt suggests that Maleek is probably a black man without a lot of formal education, without using a single bit of dialect.
Use speech tags sparingly. The question of speech tags (“he said”, “she said”) is to some extent a matter of style. There are some cases where they’re essential, in order to clarify the identify of the speaker. A conversation where every utterance is attributed, though, starts to feel unnatural.
Use other actions to break up speech. All the examples I’ve cited do this, to a greater or lesser extent. Remember that people don’t usually just sit there talking. They do other things as they’re conversing, and frequently what they do, or the manner in which they do it, reveals additional details about the character’s state of mind.
On the other hand, composing dialogue-only flashers can be a great way to hone your skills in writing speech. Can you create a two-hundred word story that includes no speech tags, no action, nothing but quotations?
Personally, I’ve learned a lot from this type of exercise. Here’s a recent example—not exactly realistic, perhaps, but I think it clearly distinguishes between the characters, as well as explicating the plot!
By Lisabet Sarai
“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”
“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”
“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”
“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”
“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”
“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”
“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”
“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”
“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“
“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”
“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”
“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”
“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”
“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”
Until next month…!