Let’s Talk: putting your dialogue to work

My characters are just place holders in my writing until they actually open their mouths and speak. Then they come to life. That is why dialogue should be doing some heavy lifting in your novels. Dialogue is the best action that can be given to a character. Their ability to speak can bring to life a sense of who they are, what they are saying, and why they are saying it. But it doesn’t take a lot of telling to make that happen. Dialogue reveals once you start writing it. And when you begin to really develop good dialogue, it can change the way you see the writing.

There is a lot of focus on writing convincing main characters that may live on through a series. And while we spend time with the characters, what they look like and how they function, eventually, they will need to speak. But creating a character is far from using a D&D profile sheet and creating whatever makes sense in the moment. Characters often develop with the writing process, and they sometimes bend the story to their emerging will. Their conflict and desire (as Janet Burroway clearly defines it), can shift and create opportunities in the story that will change the fundamental scope of how you see the story and a characters role in it. It doesn’t until they speak.

Dialogue isn’t just about talking and making conversations, it is about action and this is probably the most important use of dialogue in a novel. In the book Writing Fiction: a guide to narrative craft by Janet Burroway, she discusses the concept of dialogue as action. She explains, “Speech characterizes in a way that is different from appearance, because speech represents an effort, mainly voluntary, to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste or preference but also deliberated thought. Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logical to emotion”(45). Dialogue should be working for you on multiple levels. It can reveal a characters manner or impulse, it can reveal their needs and desires, it can show their apprehension to talk at all. But the most important element that dialogue can do is create action. “Dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change. If in doubt, ask yourself: Can this conversation between characters really change anything?” This is where you can weaponize your dialogue from chatter to action and make it feel like when the characters speak, something is coming. That intensity and foreshadow is where the characters move from chatter to important and meaningful advances in the telling of the story.

It is important to value planning and vision when it comes to your writing, but I don’t think there is enough value placed in the flexible act of writing itself. Some pragmatist just rolled their eyes. Writers should listen to the characters speak. Shifts and changes in what they say and do are important to creating credibility, vision, and putting the reader into a state of active listening. This will lead to important dialogue and action points along well crafted interactions with characters.

Controlling dialogue and the way characters speak is important to understand the character, but it is also an opportunity to affect the story. In writing a story about a mother-in law, I wrote about her coming to the house staying with her children. It wasn’t until she finally got to a story about her husband that story broke open and began moving. As a writer, there is no better revelation than writing dialogue that shifts everything into place. Sometimes dialogue is meant to give the reader what is expected, i.e. this is the part where she is going to tell him she loves him. But sometimes, just a turn of phrase or an unexpected line will ignite action and story. Often is can’t be planned. It has to be developed through the story process and the developing understanding you have between your characters.

In the television show Atlanta (FX), Darius is by far the character who tosses off dialogue that challenges the other dynamics. Every time he says something, it changes the balance of things. Writing unexpected dialog isn’t just about opportunity or humor, but it is giving the reader something to think on, something to watch for. Don’t get me wrong, plotting and allowing for the audience to understand and predict some of the plot is valuable in buying in for reader. But sometimes, it is the dialogue that sets something into motion that a reader didn’t see coming.

Technical elements of dialogue are skills we develop and copy. How dialogue looks and work is important. But what is more important is getting the exchange down. Sometimes, it is better to forget all the formatting and write out dialogue like a play that is simple and concise. Then you can add format back into the traditional narrative that you are creating. When two people are speaking, the tags with names and attribution should be minimal. It get complicated when more people are involved. Practice and look for examples in book you admire. I prefer indenting dialogue when shifting speakers, but some writers prefer to embed their narrative into longer paragraphs. That is a matter of preference and vision for the sake of the writer. Lastly, I think it is important to discuss the outliers in dialogue. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotes and other standard formatting elements, but the reader can understand the conversation once the reader understands the system has changed. Faulkner and others have mastered dialects but that can be tricky, forced, and offensive. Sometimes, it is best to suggest and then leave it alone. I also think in historical context, simplified or neutral language is better. Using contraction in the 1700’s just doesn’t sound right. Historical fiction is about being neutral with language. And if you aren’t sure what the voices should sounds like, look to the masters to see how they handled the speaking voices of history.

There is so much to think about as you begin your first draft, and like actors it isn’t a bad idea to get them talking early and try some scenes in your journal to see if they can open up a bit and share some of the dialogue created insights that can be captured when your characters start talking openly in your writing. It is often the defining moment between telling a story to the reader, and showing them something meaningful, important, and connective.


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