Writing Basics: Part Two--Dynamic Dialogue

by Michelle J. Prima




We all do it--listen in on other people's conversations. The one-sided cell phone call on the train, the young couple arguing in the electronics store, the booth full of teenagers behind you in the restaurant.  We can't help it.  And honestly, sometimes we don't want to.  Why not?  Because it is one of the best ways to learn how to write effective dialogue.

Dialogue is an integral part of your story.  It is used to reveal characters, advance the plot, and create suspense.  Let's look at characterization first.  You've already learned how to create unforgettable characters in the first part of this "Writing Basics" series.  Let's elaborate on characterization more by talking about dialogue.  Dialogue between characters can reveal much about them--where they're from. their personality, what motivates them, etc.  By 'listening' to what they have to say, we can learn a lot about them. 

For instance, dialect can reveal a person's geographic background.  Certain words and phrases are associated with certain parts of the country.  In an American setting, does your character say 'soda' or 'pop?'  Does he say 'hot dog' or 'frankfurter?'  His choice of words is a clue to his home town.  Words can also reveal what country your character is from.  Consider 'bairn' vs. 'child.'  Or 'Lass' vs. 'girl.'  Some words and phrases can make you identify immediately with a character's place of origin. 

Diction and vocabulary can further define your characters.  Do they speak in long, complex sentences, which suggest an educated background?  Or do they speak in half-sentences and use slang in every conversation, which suggests a lower-class upbringing?  Does one simple conversation include several multi-syllable, uncommon words?  Or does the speaker sound like he is addressing a two-year old with a second-grade reader's vocabulary?  Be careful using diction and true to life dialects, however.  Phonetically spelling out a character's entire speech to make it sound authentic can become laborious and confusing to the reader. Sprinkling the conversation with a few select words will be enough to create the correct image.

Dialogue can also reveal a character's personality.  Does one character constantly interrupt another while he is speaking?  Does your character give only two or three word responses to questions? Does your character run off at the mouth and hardly pauses to let others contribute to the conversation?  All of these examples tell you something about the characters.  The first one is impatient, and either rude or uneducated in speaking/listening skills.  The second is either shy or upset, not wanting to reveal too much about himself.  The third character is self-centered and doesn't want to let anyone else take the spotlight. Use this technique to show your readers what your characters are like.

Dialogue can also advance the plot.  By having two characters interact, the reader can learn the character's goals, as well as the motivating factors for achieving those goals.  Consider the following:

"I have to find that necklace," Sylvia said as she rummaged through the top drawer of her sister's bureau. 

Anthony placed his hand on her arm.  "It will show up.  Don't fret overmuch about it."

"You don't understand," Sylvia said, pulling away.  "If that necklace isn't back in father's safe before the ball tonight, he will think I stole it."

"But you didn't take it.  Stephanie did." 

"Which is all the more reason for me to find it.  I have to protect my sister."

What does the above conversation tell you?  First, we know Sylvia needs to find the necklace.  We wonder why.  We also learn that Sylvia didn't misplace the necklace.  Her sister did.  A sister she is trying to protect.  The reader will immediately want to know why Stephanie took the necklace, what the importance of the necklace is, why Sylvia is trying to protect her younger sister, and what will happen if Sylvia doesn't find the necklace.  All these questions are raised by one simple conversation.  Character's goals and motivations are hinted at, but not revealed, which makes the reader turn pages. 


That brings us to the third reason for dialogue--creating suspense.  What if the conversation had gone this way?

"Now where is that necklace?" Sylvia said as she rummaged through the top drawer of the bureau. 

Anthony shrugged.  "It will show up.  Don't fret about it."

"But I have to find it," Sylvia said.

"You aren't the one who misplaced it."

"It doesn't matter.  I still have to find it."

In the second example, we know Sylvia wants to find the necklace, but we don't learn why.  There isn't the aura of suspense in the second example, because as far as the reader knows, there are no consequences to Sylvia NOT locating the necklace.  The reader won't care, and this becomes nothing more than wasted dialogue.  Make your dialogue matter. 


Also, balance your dialogue with narrative to create the correct pacing for the story you are writing.  More dialogue and less narrative speeds up the story, which is good for a suspense novel.  Long, narrative paragraphs interspersed with less dialogue will give your reader a more relaxed, easy read.  If you are writing a sweet romance, or sweeping epic, that is the balance you want to achieve.


Decorating you dialogue with descriptions and actions can speed up or slow down a story also.  It can help move the story along, such as above.  In the first example, we know Sylvia is rummaging through her sister's bureau.  The second example doesn't clarify that fact.  That makes a big difference to the story.  Why would Sylvia be in her sister's bureau?  Also, when Anthony places his arm on Sylvia's in the first example, we see his compassion.  When he shrugs in the second example, we feel he doesn't care.  That gives an entirely different impression of him. 


But just as description can help, it can also hurt.  Too many tags can slow down the reader.  Too few tags can confuse the reader.  Strike the correct balance.  True-to-life dialogue can slow down the story as well.  Do you really want to listen to two characters discuss their trip to the mall, or what they made for dinner?  Not really.


How do you know what the correct balance is?  You can have others critique your writing for clarity.  And you can read your dialogue aloud to see how it sounds.  Once the words start flowing, you may find yourself tripping over certain areas, or confused by others.  Using these techniques and keeping the above in mine will help you create dynamic dialogue in your story. 



Dialogue by Gloria Kempton, Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

The Dialects of England by Peter Trudgill, Blackwell Publishers, 1999.


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