Writing 101: Dialogue Part II

Better late than never, here is what I'm sure is the much anticipated part two of Writing 101: Dialogue.

Last week I talked about giving your dialogue context and purpose. This week, I want to discuss a few other finer tips on dialogue.

Did you know there is a king of dialogue rules? Yeah, me either. But the internet doesn't lie. Apparently the king of dialogue has decreed that Dialogue in a novel must be in conflict.

According to James N. Frey "When characters have different goals and are intent on achieving them, conflict results. If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama."

This makes good sense. After all, no one wants to read a book where everyone always agrees and gets along. Conflict is the difference between a good idea and a good story. But like all rules, even the King's rules, this one should be broken...sometimes.

Every once in a while, your characters may want to just have an honest conversation. Maybe your character wants to explain something to another character. No drama, just an 'I need you to understand me' kind of talk.

This is fine, but if most of your conversations don't have conflict, or at least an underlying tension, your readers will stop being interested.

Here are some additional things you can do to give your characters some character through dialogue. Most of these come from a great book by Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I highly suggest this book for some simple to use tips to take your writing to a better place.

Vary your sentence length. This one is easy to spot on the page.

Hey, Bob, How was your weekend?”
Pretty,good. How was yours?”
OK, Did you catch the game?”
Yep, I never miss one.”
What did you think?”
The referees were awful.”
I couldn't agree more.”

Wow, even in real life that conversation is dull. I can almost here “Bueller, has anyone seen Bueller?” in the background.

Look what happens we vary the length.

Hey, Bob, how was your weekend?”
Pretty good, you know. Same old, same old. How about you?”
OK, Did you catch that game on Sunday?”
Oh yeah. I never miss an opportunity to watch the boys in blue in action. During football season, Sundays are holier than ever.”
Well, than, what did you think?”
Oh, man, the refs were creaming us out there. Did you see that call right before the half? Since when did a little bump in the shoulder constitute un-sportsman-like conduct?”
I hear ya, man, I hear ya.”

But even if you vary the sentence length, that will still be a boring conversation. Why? Character A asks a question and then Character B answers. Character B asks a question and then... you get the idea. What if when Character A asks “What did you think?”, Character B responds, “What did I think? What did you think when Coach Nimrod called a trick play in the fourth quarter with 3 seconds to go?” Character B doesn't answer the question directly, but we certainly get the point.

Also, don't forget that rarely do we actually speak in complete sentences. Most of the time we use fragments or abbreviated sentences. Contrary to everything your sophomore English teacher told you, you can use a sentence fragment. And even better, you can string two of them together with a comma.

Take this for example, your character can say,

It's good. It's really good.”

Or, they can say,

It's good, really good.”

See the difference. Same words, but the second example sounds much closer to what someone would actually say.

So there you have it, the nitty-gritty on what I learned about dialogue. I had intended to discuss accents this week, but Lordy, that's a big subject. So next week I will tackle the subject of accents and dialect. As always, let me know if you have suggestions for topics you'd like to see covered.

Here are links to this week's resources: