One of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because the author tells too much of the story and fails to engage the reader by showing action. Dialogue is action. It’s one of the best ways to show your story. Good dialogue is like having good tires on your car. Dialogue grips the road of your plot and keeps your story car going up and down hills, through the twists and turns of your plot road.
1. Reveal Character
When we meet new people on the job or in social situations, we gradually get to know them through casual conversation. At first we might only learn their name and what sort of job they do. Then we might discover they’re married, have children, just got a new dog. We learn things about their personalities, whether they are rude, forgiving, ambitious, or can’t say no. Hopes, fears, dreams are all eventually revealed the closer we become to that person. Through conversation we decide if we want to know the person better, or keep them at a distance.
It is the same for the relationship between your readers and the characters in your story. As writers we don’t want to tell the reader everything about our characters up front. We dole out information about their background, goals and fears, and personality through their interaction with other characters in the story. Allow your character to reveal themselves to the reader organically inside their actions and reactions within the story.
The beats of a character’s dialogue, the structure of their sentences can reflect attitude (cynical, snarky, optimistic, or cold) as well as how formal or informal they are. Do they use contractions, proper English with an expansive vocabulary, or do they use a lot of slang?
2. Create Mood
Dialogue can also help the writer enhance the mood of the story. Aside from description and plot, dialogue can lighten or darken a scene.
3. Create Tension
As with all elements of writing craft, the elements of good dialogue over lap and intertwine. In writing a line of dialogue that reflects character, the emotion of that character comes through. Remember conflict comes from plot. Tension in a story comes from emotion. By letting the emotion of the character come through in the dialogue, the tension of your story can increase.
Pauses add doubt. Doubt increases the tension. Anything that raises questions and makes the reader wonder can add tension to the conversation. Dialogue drags unless it is infused with tension.
4. Add Conflict
In remembering that conflict comes from plot, dialogue can be used as a tool to convey facts and let the reader know of a new plot twist or obstacle.
5. Show Growth
Remember your character arc. Your character needs to change for better or worse. They might discover something new about themselves, overcome a fear or turn to the dark side at that moment of choice. Dialogue is the primary means to show the reader that what has happened in the story has changed the character.
If you’re character is judgmental at the beginning of your story, the dialogue must reflect that, so by the end, the reader can see by that through the character’s action and conversation they have changed.
6. Reveal Back Story
Dialogue not only moves the story forward by increasing the pace and raising questions, it also reveals character.
Everything your character says, how they say it and how they react, reflects who they are and who they are reflects their personal back story.
When writing back story into a scene remember to dole it out in small bits. Also keep in mind that dialogue should not repeat what the reader or another character already knows.
When considering ways to reveal back story, don’t make the mistake of one character saying to the other, “Remember when…” I’m not saying never use the phrase, but if you do, be sure you’re not using it to segue into an info dump of back story.
7. Include Information
Dialogue can be used to give the reader information that the reader needs to know, but isn’t important enough to write a scene around.
If you have to dole out a chunk of information, do it naturally back and forth between the characters. And incorporate other elements of dialogue: character, conflict, tension, etc. so it serves more than one purpose.
8. Increase Pacing
Good dialogue increases the pacing of the story, which engages the reader without the long slow paragraphs of narration. Remember dialogue creates white space on the page. If you pick up a book and while flipping through it, see long paragraphs of lengthy description and narration, mentally your brain says, “This is too hard.” But if you flip through another book, with lots of white space, your brain will think, “This is easy.” By having white space on a page the eye moves quickly and the pacing increases.
As the writer it’s up to you to decide how best to use that visual tool.
Think about places where there might be a lot of tension or excitement between your characters. In those instances use more white space, or tight dialogue. Consider short sentences and sentence fragments.
Utilizing less dialogue and including more narration, slows things down. You’re the director. You may want to slow things down after a tense emotional scene to give the reader a break. After a slow scene with more internal dialogue you may want to pick up the pace so you don’t lose your reader.
Dialogue is a tool to tie your reader to your story. It makes your characters come alive on the page. By using dialogue to show these eight elements of your story you can keep things moving and the reader stays invested and keeps turning pages.
Kathy has a great class on writing dialog starting next week!
- Does Your Car Have Good Tires–How Dialogue Drives Your Story with Kathy Otten – November 12th – December 8th
A Civil War Romance from Kathy Otten and The Wild Rose Press
A Place In Your Heart
Gracie McBride isn’t looking for love; she’s looking for respect. But in this man’s world of Civil War medicine, Gracie is expected to maintain her place changing beds and writing letters. Her biggest nemesis is the ward surgeon, Doctor Charles Ellard, who seems determined to woo her with arrogant kisses and terrible jokes.
Charles is an excellent surgeon. He assumed he would be well received by an army at war. He was not. Friendless and alone, he struggles to hide the panic attacks that plague him while the only person who understands him is a feisty Irish nurse clearly resolved to keep him at a distance.
But Charles is sent to the battlefield, and Gracie is left with a wounded soldier, a box of toys, and a mystery which can only be solved by the one man she wishes could love her, both as a woman and a nurse.