When it comes to writing narrative prose, the author is like an orchestra’s conductor. She controls the pace of the story through careful word choices; she evokes images and senses through descriptions, and reveals character using action and dialogue. If one instrument is off key or out of time with the other narrative elements, the reader can hear and feel the difference. Dialogue is the string section of your orchestra; it carries most of the narrative weight. When done right, your story’s dialogue feels natural, reveals character and plot, and adds greater depth to the story’s theme. Fail and you face a dissatisfied reader. Dissatisfied readers won’t buy your next book.
What can you do to ensure dialogue isn’t the cause for reader dissatisfaction?
I’ve compiled a list of ways your dialogue shifts tune from the rest of your prose. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a good start. For each possible problem area, I’ll include a description of the problem and a proposed way to tune your dialogue into symphonic perfection.
Have you read a novel or watched a movie where the dialogue read or sounded incredibly natural, but it didn’t add substance to the story? You won’t typically find this flaw in major motion pictures, because they employ a team of writers, film-editors, directors, and producers who know better than to waste the audience’s time on idle chit-chat. You will find this dialogue in some lower budget films.
A mistake storytellers often make is starting a scene with idle chit-chat. These poorly written scenes start with character introductions, stories exchanged between characters that don’t reveal character or add to the plot, and sometimes even conversations about the weather.
How do you tune this problem out of your dialogue? You can usually cut:
- detailed instructions from one character to another
- conversations about the weather.
Cutting is your first and often best tool.
Let’s argue that you do need two characters to make an introduction. What’s the best way? You can summarize the introduction. Robert Thorsten introduced himself to Abigale Williams. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done. Readers have seen introductions enough in their real lives to fill in the gaps for your fiction. This is a fiction-writing short cut you can generally get away with.
Or try to make the introduction unusual. One character can say a surprising or bold statement to another upon their introduction. This is one way to reveal character. If you need to talk about the weather, it better be subtext for a deeper issue.
If the dialogue doesn’t add to character, add to the plot, or create conflict, you can probably cut it.
Your Dialogue Doesn’t Reveal Character
Ever read a novel where all the characters sound alike? The story wasn’t that great, right? That’s because great characters have strong opinions. Dialogue is the best place for characters to express those opinions.
Characters also have wants, needs, and desires. Author Robert Olen Butler describes this as ‘yearning’–a deep desire that drives the character forward in the plot. Characters who are puppets to the plot don’t need to reveal character; because the author has already decided what direction the story needs to take. It’s usually boring and predictable.
How do you reveal character through dialogue?
- Give your character a strong opinion.
- Give then a deep desire.
- Let your character act on those opinions and desires. She’ll often fight against the plot–this is a good thing.
- You want a strong-willed character that knows what she wants. If she’s willing to fight the author for her goal, she’ll be willing to fight other characters for it.
Don’t be afraid of strong opinions in your characters, even controversial opinions. These strong opinions expressed through dialogue and actions hook your reader. As readers, we’ll either root for them to win or root against them, but we won’t find them boring and we won’t think they sound like every other character in the novel.
Part 2: 3 Ways to Show with Dialogue
Shawn Scarber lives and works in North Texas. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Black Denim Lit, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Abyss & Apex magazines among others. He’s a Clarion West 06 graduate and an active member of the Future Classics Speculative Fiction Writers. Connect with him on Twitter @obliquefiction. Follow him on FaceBook fb.com/shawn.scarber or check out his website, shawnscarber.com.