The ways in which we communicate through our characters do more than entertain our readers; both nonverbal and verbal cues develop the individual as well as the world in which the story is taking place. A simple gesture, a single word could be the difference between life and death.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
― William Goldman, The Princess Bride
When it comes to dialogue, writers really do need to say what they mean and mean what they say. Think about it; dialogue has to stick out between sensory description, action, introspection, and exposition. It has to serve multiple purposes without overwhelming your readers, entertain them, make them feel as if they’re not just reading the story, but living vicariously through it. In other words, you’ve only got so many chances to use your characters’ conversations to their utmost advantage. Make them count.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs up, good dialogue doesn’t just entertain; it also informs. So remember the golden rule of improvisation: yes, and. You can’t get much across if your characters only give each other one-word answers, plus you risk wasting limited page space. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s what a specific conversation calls for. If a character is supposed to be taciturn or difficult, then he or she should hold things up—but only for so long. Otherwise, don’t let one-word answers drag dialogue on uselessly or fizzle out. Wording things just right and giving some characters a bit more know-how can even mean letting them take on some of the burden of exposition through dialogue (as we’ll touch on again here in a sec), but with a personal touch that reinforces who they are and what their roles are in the story as it unfolds. In short, never underestimate what a well-written sequence of dialogue can accomplish.
Once more, with feeling.
Not every conversation needs to be a fight, an emotional outburst, or a revelation. It does, however, need to leave the reader feeling like there was a point to it. This can be done through highlighting character differences and making them engage in a subtle give-and-take. Or, you can play off of what a character is going through or has experienced already in order to color the reader’s perspective. If someone is anxious, then what could be a casual remark about how it’ll be dark soon takes on a whole new connotation. If you don’t want your audience to know who pulled off the caper until the very end, use the main suspect’s own words to amp up suspicion and dislike, then pull the rug out from under everyone when the real culprit does away with mild-mannered comments and lashes out with a villain-worthy tirade. Even changing the spelling of certain words to accentuate a character’s unique accent can add flair and intrigue just because it shakes up the structure everyone expects to find on the page and lends another layer to what could otherwise be a very simple exchange of words.
Consider the quote I provided at the start of this post. One of the best things about The Princess Bride, in my opinion, is the dialogue. And in this book’s case, I’m not just referring to the speeches set in quotation marks. The story is told as if someone were sitting right in front of you, spelling out even the exposition as if it were part of a conversation. This helps enhance little hints to character backstories, such as the fact that one character thinks he’s very smart, the brains of the outfit, whereas another subtly reveals his own intelligence and street smarts with nothing more than a mild reprimand regarding word choice.
Not everyone is a comedian, just as we aren’t all romantics, cynics, foul-mouthed, prim and proper, etc. One thing we can control in written dialogue, though, is the authenticity of our characters’ speeches. So if you’re writing for the jokester, by all means, make ‘em laugh. Just don’t include super cheesy jokes or quips, or chances are they’ll fall flat and turn your readers off to not just that character, but maybe even the story as a whole. Romantic declarations can be heartfelt without the drama; in fact, some of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard fell in line with “less is more” logic, but that could just be me. And while I’m the first to admit that I can be a potty mouth in my personal life, overloading a character’s speech with curses every other word will get old fast. Use dirty words to emphasize a situation or the character’s mindset, not just because you can or because seeing it on the page makes your inner twelve-year-old snicker.
In an attempt to try and ensure natural, flowing dialogue before you hand your work off to an editor, you can always give the pages to a friend to read, or you can read it aloud to yourself (accents and physically blocking the scene optional, but recommended). Both strategies do come with their own obstacles—namely that friends don’t always feel comfortable giving writer friends their honest opinion if it’s not totally positive, while some writers are narcissistic enough that no matter how it actually reads, they think their dialogue belongs in a blockbuster or one of those “ten best quotes of all time” lists—but they are some of the best methods I’ve come across for troubleshooting the authenticity of written character speeches.
To tag, or not to tag?
This is one hot button issue in the writing community. Some writers subscribe to the belief that you shouldn’t use too many adverbs or alternatives to some form of “said” because doing so can bog down your writing and take readers out of the dialogue, which defeats the purpose of writing it in the first place. Others are less strict and argue that adverbs can accentuate dialogue and help readers really engage with the story, not to mention eliminate room for doubt as to how the characters are supposed to be feeling and interacting with one another. As I am on many writing-related topics, I find myself caught between the two camps.
On the one hand, I think there’s something to be said for allowing readers’ imaginations more wiggle room. Instead of explicitly stating that someone said something loudly, for example, I’m all for a writer leaving it at “So-and-so shouted.” And I don’t know about all of you, but I get a little bored with repetitive forms of “said.” On the other hand, if the scene you’re reading is a tense one, and we know that the characters are at odds, then do we really need something other than an exclamation point to indicate the conversation’s intended tone and volume? So, long story short, I’d say this is one area in which it really does pay to dish out everything in moderation. And, my next point offers an alternative to consider in this debate as well as in terms of general dialogue construction.
Keep it moving.
Rather than add a lot of “saids” to your word count, you can illustrate the characters’ states of mind with what they’re doing as they speak. Think about it; how often do we stand in one place and move nothing but our mouths when we talk to someone? Maybe your character is pacing, adding a sense of urgency and anxiety to the conversation. Maybe someone talks with their hands. Maybe the narrator notices how tired someone else looks, or makes note of their posture and how it is accentuated by other aspects of the setting. Even something as subtle as avoiding eye contact speaks volumes, and inserting these motions and details helps paint a more vibrant picture in readers’ minds, as well as cuts down on the frequency of dialogue tags.
Now, with all of this information buzzing around in your head, I want to reemphasize a simple truth I’ve expressed in the past, and will probably keep saying until I’m actually blue in the face. Despite the fact that there are some rules we absolutely cannot break, there is technically no right or wrong way to write fiction. The same principle applies to dialogue. So while every reader is free to express an opinion about your work, at the end of the day, it boils down to whether or not you, the writer, are happy with what you’ve written.
That is, as they say, all she wrote.