#07 Crafting Compelling Dialogue
Crafting compelling dialogue is an essential skill for an author. Unfortunately, many writers don?t pay this area of the craft enough attention. In the early days of my writing career, I didn?t either, and I paid dearly for it. I have wised up and spent considerable time improving how my characters engage with each other (and the reader) on the page.
?A reader’s emotions can be sparked with few words. That’s the power of dialogue.? ? Sol Stein
The Purpose of Crafting Compelling Dialogue
Effective dialogue sets scenes, brings characters to life, eases information into the reader?s consciousness, reveals relationships, sets the tone, creates atmosphere, generates suspense, builds tension, reveals conflict, evokes emotion, and above all moves the story forward.
?When a character says something, it should make us laugh or cry or think.? ? Cheryl St John, Crafting Dynamic Dialogue
How to Write Compelling Dialogue
Avoid Writing in a Vacuum
Writing does not occur in a vacuum. I did this often in my dialogue, making it seem vastly unrealistic. Two ways you can avoid this is to:
- Use banter between characters
- Fill the awkward silences with pointers towards their internal thoughts or their setting
?I bet you didn?t know I was in Vietnam,? you say.
?A Cuban in Vietnam??
You notice how her fingers shake as she takes a cigarette out of the YSL Ritz pack.
?When the time came, everybody went,? you say.
?You were here?? you ask.
?Cuba,? she says and looks at the man playing the electric piano. He jumps up and down as he starts his solo.
?Like I said, I went.?
?All right,? she says. ?How many did you kill??
?I got there at the end. Before I knew it I was back.?
?Blown? in The Soviet Circus Comes to Havana by Virgil Suarez
This is an excellent example of dialogue that describes the setting and characterises. The additional descriptors sprinkled throughout the conversation serve to create a vivid setting. You can identify the exchange is taking place between a man and a woman on a street corner where an artist is performing. Our woman is a smoker, and the way she speaks and what she notices serves to characterise her.
Avoid the Predictable
Dialogue that foils the reader?s expectations, even a little, arouses the reader?s interest and makes them pay closer attention. Misinterpretations and misunderstandings create tension between characters. Ensure your characters misinterpret something said and show how they react. In this way, your dialogue will turn up the pressure.
The subtext is the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation and comes to be known by the reader or audience over time, as the story itself does not immediately or purposefully reveal it.
?I?ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.? (Gatsby)
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-coloured disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft, rich heap mounted higher?shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
?They?re such beautiful shirts,? she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ?It makes me sad because I?ve never seen such?such beautiful shirts before.? (Daisy)
The Great Gatsby?By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Daisy, while an emotional character, could not possibly be crying over the beauty of these shirts. Instead, she is crying over the subtext: she was not with Gatsby due to his lack of wealth, and now, he is wealthy, and they still are not together.
?Dialogue should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.? ? Elizabeth Bowen
Inexperienced authors, like my younger self, tend to drag a conversation on longer than it needs to be. You must be ruthless in cutting out anything that doesn?t propel the story forward. Furthermore, don?t repeat statements or questions, because in real life, people often say the same thing over and over until it sinks in. Tight speech without repetition creates more emphasis, so say something once in the snappiest way possible.
?You?re leaving me??
?At least tell me where you?re going.?
?Its really obvious where I?m going, after what just happened. I?m going home, of course. You shouldn?t need to ask. ?
?Where are you going??
By cutting out all unnecessary aspects, the exchange conveys more mystery and emotion.
The above examples communicate the difference compelling dialogue can make. It is intriguing and compels the reader to continue reading. The opposite will send readers packing faster than illegal immigrants during an ICE raid.
The Big Takeaway
Here are a few last gems for you to consider:
- Give each character a unique voice. They should not all sound the same, and they should not sound like you, the author.
- Act your dialogue out with someone or speak it out loud on your own. If it sounds flat, scrap it and start again. You?ll thank me later.
- Don?t give away too much through dialogue exposition. It?s clich?d and boring.
- Don?t create inauthentic sounding speech. We never speak 99% of the things we think.
- Don?t write dialogue that goes nowhere. Cut anything that lacks energy
- Don?t be too articulate. Real talk is fragmented, timely and urgent. Condense as much as possible and be as precise as possible. Think about what the characters want and need and fear and love and hate.
?Writers are born with a storytelling instinct, a desire to share their views and characters with the world, but the technical aspects of the craft require a skillset learned by reading hundreds of books ? fiction and nonfictions ? by putting thousands of words on paper and often by getting them wrong before ever getting them right.? ? Cheryl St John
For a more in-depth look at dialogue, check out these resources:
Don’t forget to check out my podcast, where I share more tips and tricks on writing. I air a new episode every week on Wednesdays. For more content like this, check out my other blog posts. Now go write brilliant exchanges between your characters. You?ve got this!