I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking.”

Joan Didion

Last week we explored the ways dialogue differs from actual conversation and the importance of a character’s voice.

This week is about additional ways to strengthen you dialogue:

  1. Let your dialogue do the talking
    “You’ve gotta be kidding,” she said astonished. What is said already explains she is astonished. Let the dialogue convey the emotion instead of you explaining it.

Another way to do this – if you feel the need to give a little more “umph” to what is being said, you can use a little moment of action, often called “a beat”: She stopped midstep. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

  1. When you have three or more characters

Remember to let your readers know who is talking. Usually when we have two characters, it’s pretty easy for readers to follow and we don’t have to constantly use the characters’ names. When there is more than two, however, it’s harder to keep track. You can help your readers by either using attributions – “I won’t have it,” Jane said – or by having the character perform an action (beat) – “I won’t have it.” Jane threw the towel down on the counter. Only use as many attributions or beats as necessary to keep your readers from getting confused.

  1. Keep adverbs at bay

In all of your writing, it’s a good idea to try and ban adverbs and, to some extent, adjectives [see my previous article, “Choose Your Words Carefully,” Jan. 13]. But in dialogue, it’s really important to not depend on adverbs. It goes back to rule number one above. Adverbs often carry the emotion of the person, whereas, you are trying to let the dialogue do that.

I can’t stand that guy,” he said haughtily.

I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I really can’t do it,” Jack said manically.

I’m delighted you chose me,” she said happily.

In all three of these examples, you can drop the adverb and the meaning is still clear.

You don’t have to banish all adverbs, but when you see one in an attribution, decide whether you can just delete it or whether you need to improve the dialogue so it provides the emotion you are trying to convey.

  1. Attributions

Speaking of attributions, the rule today is to use “said” most of the time. And while that is a good rule, it shouldn’t be taken to the extreme. If you are driving yourself crazy using “said” all the time, give yourself a little leeway. You might use “answered,” “replied,” or “told.” What you don’t want to do is go overboard with attributions other than “said.” Using too many will distract from the dialogue.

  1. What’s not said

Sometimes the most important piece of dialogue is what is not said. If Kate doesn’t tell her brother that she saw his wife with his best friend, we want to know why she didn’t tell him. If Jesse doesn’t tell his adopted mother that he’s been to see his birth mother, we are intrigued. Omission can be as revealing as what is spoken.

  1. Don’t use dialogue

Don’t use dialogue to explain something the characters would never explain to each other – such as giving background information or offering details. While I absolutely love Pat Conroy, in his book, South of Broad, he has his main character riding his bike on his newspaper route, and almost everyone he sees says something to him that provides the background for what happened to him when he was younger. All these people simply would not do this on the same day.

Also, dialogue should not be used to give a long explanation for something that can be quickly condensed. If you need to introduce a piece of backstory or explain how something works, it’s often better to summarize it in the story itself, rather than have a character divulge it. You wouldn’t have a plumber explaining in intricate detail the parts of a septic tank. He might say a few words about it, but that’s all – unless this tediousness is a character trait you want to highlight.

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