By Ashley Lister
Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July. The wonderful Lisabet Sarai shared an example of her dialogue writing in the comments on that post and it’s well worth checking out as an exemplar of how to construct character through dialogue.
I want to briefly touch on dialogue again this month, just because it’s such an important element of what we, as writers, produce. And the message I want to share is: know who you’re writing for.
When we’re reading, and we grow weary with a text, most of us flick through the pages until we reach the next piece of dialogue. If it’s good, we’ll carry on with the story. If that bores us as well, then the story gets put aside.
Which suggests, if we want to make sure our readers stay with the story we’ve written, the dialogue needs to be intriguing, credible and engaging for the audience we want to satisfy. Characters chatting about the weather and engaging in the sort of banal exchanges the linguists describe as ‘phatic communion’ can be used to give a frisson of reality to your story. But keep in mind that some readers are reading your story to escape from reality.
Whilst this might sound like conflicting advice, what I’m trying to say here is: know your audience. Write short snappy exchanges that engage your reader, OR write slices of reality that allow your reader to hear the soul of your character – but always be aware of what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.
The reader who wants snappy dialogue is going to grow bored with the banality of a real-world exchange, just as the reader who wants a true reflection of reality will not be content with punchy one-liners and witty comebacks. I try to write with one particular audience type in mind, as can be seen in the following exchange from the early part of my recent novel, Doll House.
Ben didn’t want to be intrigued but he couldn’t help wonder about the building.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You sound like a fucking kidnap victim,” John yawned.
“It worries me that you know what kidnap victims sound like. Where are you taking me?”
“I told you where I’m taking you,” John spoke with weary resignation. “For the next three months I’ll be giving you what every lazy writer needs. I’m putting you in my personal country cottage. You’ll have the solitude and the isolation necessary to finish your latest novel. I’m taking you back to your writing career.”
Ben stared out of the window. He scowled at the sign saying WELCOME TO SANDALWOOD.
As always, I look forward to reading your comments in the boxes below.