Writercraft: Dialogue

To prevent this from becoming a grumble (or just a rant), I’m going to do my best to talk about dialogue here, rather than dialogue tags. I doubt I’m alone in hating the overuse or creative alternatives some people use to try and add interest to their writing, but that’s more of a stylistic/genre divide, and I do try to have this blog be something slightly more universal than ‘Stranger on the Internet Has Strong Opinions: Thinks You Should Know‘.

So—dialogue. The staple of a short story, a key character development tool, a way of developing a character’s voice, and one of the best ways to make your audience relate to your characters. Developing a believable character is a whole other post, but dialogue should flow naturally if you have can keep a clear grasp of who your character is, what they want and what they know. Deciding on those factors has very little to do with dialogue (the topic of this post, though you wouldn’t know it).

The important thing to focus on, then, besides letting your characters voice reflect who they are, is the relationship between your character and everything around them. Other than your character’s motivation (which should shine through in every scene), context is the most important factor to consider when writing dialogue.

Context is obviously far too broad a category to fully explore here, but let’s go through the ways it might affect dialogue within your writing.

The state your character is in as a result of past trials or circumstances not only can, but should affect the way your character speaks. A tired or injured person will speak in shorter sentences, and could even be blunt to the point of rudeness. If your character just lost a massive amount of blood but their speech isn’t affected, you may have fallen into the classic trap of telling, rather than showing. Telling isn’t always bad, but showing and telling, or just showing, is going to make the reader feel more engrossed in your story.

For example:

“I don’t mean to worry you, but I think I need to go to the hospital,” Jim said, as he looked at the puddle of blood on the floor.

“What? Oh no!” said Emily, “Your leg is bleeding.”

That’s pretty terrible, right? You could try to spice it up with dialogue tags.

“I don’t mean to worry you, but I think I need to go to the hospital,” Jim slurred, as he looked at the puddle of blood on the floor.

“What? Oh no!” cried Emily, “Your leg is bleeding.”

Still pretty bad. I know! Let’s spice it up with some adverbs!

“I don’t mean to worry you, but I think I need to go to the hospital,” Jim slurred, as he looked worriedly at the puddle of blood on the floor.

“What? Oh no!” cried Emily shrilly, “Your leg is bleeding.”

Terrible. The worst yet. Clearly, the problem is the dialogue itself.

“Are there any hospitals nearby?” Jim asked, as the blood poured steadily onto the floor. “Like, really nearby? Or maybe you own a staple gun?”

“What are you—?” Emily finally looks over, “Dear God, Jim! Your leg’s bleeding.”

Obviously, that’s far better. Let’s look at why, line by line.

“Are there any hospitals nearby?” Jim asked, as the blood poured steadily onto the floor.

You’re letting the observation of the blood give context for why Jim is asking this, and not explaining that Jim is looking at the blood. There’s no need to spell everything out— condescending to your audience is the easiest way to bore them and/or get them offside. The reader can assume that Jim doesn’t want to worry or interrupt Emily, but also that he is asking her for help, and expects her to say yes.

“Like, really nearby? Or maybe you own a staple gun?”

This both builds tension, pointing out the immediacy of the problem—Jim likely needs stitches in a hurry—and gives an idea of Jim’s relationship with Emily. He’s comfortable enough with her to joke, and rely on her for support while he is injured. The joke about a staple gun also lightens the mood somewhat.

Jim is a main character, it’s unlikely he’ll die or suffer a serious injury without the event being foreshadowed. The audience knows this, so the joke doesn’t detract from the tension built by the threat AND makes it clear that the injury is not a last-minute hindrance thrown in to artificially weaken an overpowered protagonist.


fireball-422746_640.jpg

Cool guys don’t look at explosions² because everyone knows they won’t die in them. Offscreen deaths are for love interests, side characters, and the villains in children’s books.


“What are you—?” Emily finally looks over, “Dear God, Jim! Your leg’s bleeding.”

This tells us why Emily hadn’t noticed the blood (she was looking at or focussing on something else) and tells us that Emily knows and trusts Jim enough that she tunes him out sometimes. She’s likely religious (or was raised that way) and raised in an English-speaking country or family, due to the exclamation she used. She’s shocked by the injury, but aware of the event that likely caused it, as she doesn’t ask who/what did this, or begin looking for threats.

So much more can be revealed in your writing when dialogue does the heavy lifting for the scene. You showed the reader how Jim and Emily interact, and gave hints at the scale of the problem, rather than straight-up telling the reader what was happening and how your characters felt, and drawing them out of the scene with clunky descriptions.

Compare that to the fairly bland information we received from the original dialogue:

“I don’t mean to worry you, but I think I need to go to the hospital,” Jim slurred, as he looked worriedly at the puddle of blood on the floor.

“What? Oh no!” cried Emily shrilly, “Your leg is bleeding.”

Jim’s leg is bleeding, Emily didn’t know, and he might need stitches. Even clumsily adding adverbs and dialogue tags only paints a thin veneer of emotion over the bare facts of the situation: Jim is injured, Emily is shocked.

Notice also, that the second example doesn’t keep telling you who is speaking, because the dialogue makes it clear. I’m not telling you not to use dialogue tags or people’s names, but constantly telling the reader who is speaking and how they are speaking gets annoying.

I was going to talk about deep POV, action tags, juxtapositions between internal thoughts and external words, and balancing internal monologues with spoken dialogue; but this post is already too long, so I’ll leave that for future posts.

 

 

1This can also be a great way to worldbuild, if your story is set in an alternate universe/timeline

²I just dated myself with that reference! Is The Lonely Island even a band anymore or is Andy Samberg just acting in Brooklyn 99? Does anyone read these footnotes? Should I just let this article die a peaceful death and stop typing?

 

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