Meaningful Dialogue


When your characters speak, imagine a spotlight beaming onto the page. That’s the power dialogue has to capture and focus the reader’s attention. Spoken words illuminate personality and dramatize the scene, bringing it to vibrant life.

But it’s easy to diminish dialogue’s potency with empty, unnecessary phrases. Here are a few ways to get the most mileage from your characters’ conversations.

Don’t verbalize anything we can already see — it’s too repetitious. Example:

When I walked into the room, Jack was jumping on the bed.

“My God, man, why are you jumping on the bed?”

it’s even a bit much to say, “My God, man, what are you doing?” Although it’s a natural response, it’s empty of meaning. If you leap to the character’s NEXT thought you’ll pull the reader forward.

You’ve heard it before but it’s worth saying again don’t use dialogue for exposition. Example:

“As you know, Maria, the great witch hunt began in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1650’s when two young girls, Abigail and Betty Williams, began to …”

Blech. People don’t really talk like this, and if they do, don’t invite them to dinner. They probably have photo albums detailing the cat’s operation, too. Background information can be “downloaded” quick and painlessly through normal exposition.

Skip over the empty niceties. Many social phrases that we use in real life can be excluded from dialogue: hello, goodbye, please be seated, this way to your table. Example:

The phone rang. It was Carl.

“Where have you been?” he demanded.

Readers understand that there were probably “hellos” in the conversation, but don’t need to see them. The exceptions occur when those polite nothings’ have special impact:

His lips were devouring my neck and bare shoulders. I pulled him closer, forcing his hot tongue deep into my cleavage. A soft creak from the doorway wrenched us apart, still panting.

Anna glared at us. “Dinner is served.”

The above two sentences bring up another point: “I didn’t need to use an adverb” she said icily, “to get Anna’s mood across. Her glare says it all. It’s a good rule of thumb that you should only detail the speaker’s delivery when absolutely necessary — when neither the connected action nor the words themselves show the mood.”

There are other empty expressions people use all the time: You know, like, I guess. If you’ve ever eavesdropped on two teenagers, you’ve probably heard dozens in the space of a minute! While you can use these idioms to help nail a character, be cautious. they’ll drive the reader crazy. One or two are enough to serve your purpose.

Let the dialogue run ahead of the action, when you can. Here’s what I mean: Imagine two men are digging a hole. After a few seconds they’re no longer talking about digging that hole, conversation has run on to the next thing — who or what is going into it. As readers, we have a great capacity to “leap” over to the next idea, even if we don’t immediately understand the connection. In fact, that mystery pulls us forward.

A story in which characters only say what they really mean is boring. Good dialogue is layered with subtext, additional nuances beneath the words. A brilliant example is Jack Nicholson’s character trying to order a plain omelet with toast in the movie “Five Easy Pieces.” The words themselves are rather flat, but the subtext — his palpable rage at the repressive modern world — is riveting to watch.

Since you don’t have actors to dramatize your story, you’ll have to create the subtext on the page, and one easy way is through contrast. Whenever the words and the actions don’t match up, the reader knows there is more going on. Example:

She flicked at a piece of lint on her skirt. “Of course I love you, darling.”

Punctuation with Punch: Some punctuation is specific to dialogue and sends important cues about meaning to the reader. But think of these devices as cayenne pepper — one or two in a story are plenty! For the record, they are:

Em space (—)

“I thought you’d—”

This long dash denotes the speaker has been interrupted, either by another voice or by some action, such as a kiss.

Ellipses (…)

“I thought you’d wait for me …”

This shows the speaker has trailed off. Use it to suggest there is something more the character wants to say, but can’t.

“I thought … You’d wait for me.”

This denotes a pause in speech, either because the character is confused, emotionally overloaded or panting. It’s an effective device, but don’t overuse it — your character will sound dim-witted or very hesitant.

“And you would like …?”

The unfinished question is seldom used but can create a powerful pull forward. It demands the next speaker fill in the blank.

“But just imagine …!”

The unfinished exclamation is a tricky thing to pull off, because the other character (and the reader) should have an inkling of what the unspoken words are. If in doubt, avoid it.

In film, where every second on screen costs tens of thousands of dollars, there’s an expression “Dialogue is a special effect.” That means the story is told through action and spoken words must “earn” their place on-screen. If they don’t add another dimension to the scene, they wind up on the cutting room floor.

While the pressure isn’t quite as great in written fiction, you’re still wielding a powerful device. Don’t waste your character’s moment in the ‘spotlight, give him something meaningful to say!

“Beyond the Basics” © 2005 Tulsa Brown. All rights reserved.

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