By Lou Normann
“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” – Jerome Stern
The Dialogue Dilemma
Dialogue is as crucial to fiction writers as are scenes, characters, and plots. Unless your book is about two cars that go “Vroom” at night, you are stuck with a dilemma we all face. How does a writer make dialogue believable, entertaining, and compelling enough that readers finish the book?
I am an author of adult psychological mystery, adventure, and drama. I am invited to book talks every year by local schools and writer’s conferences, and one of the most common questions I get from writers is, “How do you make your dialogue so believable?”
There’s Talk and Then There’s Written Talk
“…Dialogue serves two basic functions in the scene: Either it moves the story forward or it reveals information about the character.” Syd Field
Truthfully, as writers, we know that novels’ real-life dialogue and how we communicate with family, friends, and coworkers are night and day. In real life, we interrupt sentences, throw in many “Uh,” “Um,” and a few well-chosen “Well” into the mix. We even ignore questions when we don’t want to answer.
You can’t get away with that when you’re writing dialogue in your novel or short story – all you’ll do is annoy your reader, and there is no room for that as we all know what happens when the reader gets annoyed – they leave.
When I’m speaking with an audience, I tell them to write:
- Experiences you have encountered or heard of
- From the individual character’s viewpoint
- With the knowledge of what follows
Study dialogue from your favorite books, movies, and all those shows you’re watching on Prime or Netflix. Dialogue does not have to be the mysterious creature we make it out to be. Done right, it could be the highlight of your story – well, ok, aside from scenes, narrative, plot, and characters. Dialogue hooks the reader because it brings them into the world you’ve so creatively crafted. And you want to keep them there. Conversations and what your characters are thinking and feeling welcomes them into the dynasty of your brilliant masterpiece. You built this world; you want them to live in it.
Authentic Dialogue and Dialect
While writing my soon-to-be-published adult novel “Deathbed,” my editor made it his job to point out the issues with some dialogue between characters. If you are going to create a character who has their own style of talk, then that talk needs to be showcased in the book. Face it, dialect is taboo as of late in literature but done right; it will work to benefit the story.
In “Deathbed,” the main protagonist is a prodigal son yearning to hang out with his old childhood best friend. It’s based in my home state of Florida, and we Floridians tend to have a southern drawl. Lance didn’t, but several people back home did, especially two main characters, one of whom was a total mystery because he didn’t remember him from his past. Still, the cemetery worker knew everything about him – hmmm.
My dilemma? How do I get these people to speak with each other, make it believable, and move the story along? Dialect isn’t hard to do, but it has to be credible. How did I do it? I got in their heads. It’s the best approach; you investigate their past, you create a history rich in drama and crisis where making them come together in the story is almost like destiny. You tie their personal stories, drama, and situations together so that their eventual meeting seems natural.
Your Characters Talk to You – Listen
Your reader benefits from excellent dialogue that only you can deliver, and you feel all bubbly inside from the finished work because you listened to your characters. One of my heroes growing up was a writer that I never considered a writer. He had such a strange style and method to his work, but even today, though he has passed on, generations of readers and movie goers devour his work. I’m referring to Stan Lee.
His dialogue approach in the comics of my childhood, whether it was Johnny Storm and Benjamin Grimm, Captain America and The Falcon, or even Thor and the family in Asguard, taught me about getting the reader’s attention.
You don’t have to go out and buy the comics but think about the authors you read. What about their dialogue techniques gets your attention, so you can’t wait for their next publication. Learn from them. Adopt or adapt your dialogue style. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The Ping and Pong of Dialogue
I once heard a presenter at a conference say, “Making dialogue work is like thinking of a ping-pong match. They’re not trying to get the ball to each other; they’re trying to get the ball past each other.”
Think of your dialogue in this way; it’s a battle on both sides to make their point count, and the reader gets to benefit from great back and forth talk while being engulfed in the plotline, scene, and characters.
You can do this; remember, it’s all about the story and getting a reader hungry enough to want to devour your story. Dialogue is a crucial factor; make those words believable and magical. You’ve got this.
BIO: Lou Normann
Lou Normann credits Stan Lee, Rod Serling, and the TV episodes of Colombo as his inspiration for writing. The murder mystery thriller has been in his blood since he can remember. Telling stories came naturally since childhood. It was inevitable that his passion for words and language would turn into novels.
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