Dialogue: Maximum Effort!

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of dialogue. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate; I’m not a fan of bad dialogue in books. Unfortunately for me, and for my mind-siblings, bad dialogue pops up everywhere. Even when the dialogue itself is good, often the space between speech is lacking, and that’s where this post comes in!

I’ll say now that this is not a comprehensive post on maximising dialogue, and that you should do a lot of research of your own. That being said I’ll leave some useful links done by more professional people than me on this post for further reading.

Discussions about character interactions almost always focus on just the dialogue, that being the elements of speech, and rarely on how to build a character or world around the dialogue. But character development and exposition go a lot further than a character saying a few words, and to understand this you only have to look at the real-life conversations you have with friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers.

An easy example is often shown on TV when characters are flirting. It’s not the words they’re saying that make it flirtatious (although any topic with innuendos helps) but the way they act around the words. Do they smile or blink more than normal? Is one of them suggestively stroking something or licking a lollipop? Maybe even a chuckle or some light physical contact? None of these things are dialogue, but they all build up the scene and its characters, and they can be done in a book, too.

So that’s all good and well, and it’s something you can sort of pick up by just watching other humans, and even yourself, interact with people, and thankfully lots of authors have already done this so you don’t have to talk to another human being — great, right? Authors like James S.A. Corey does it really well with characters like Chrisjen Avasarala who’s known for cracking pistachios and making snappy insults to politicians. I highly recommend reading Caliban’s War to see this kind of thing done well in multiple characters, but Avasarala is my favourite for it. Her tone and body language is much more professional and much harsher with the politicians (especially the bobble-head secretary general), than it is with her family. She even notes regret in talking in the same way to her husband as she does her underlings. Bobbie, Amos, Alex, and a load of other characters in the whole series are fleshed out beautifully with dialogue and the space inbetween.

So say you’re not into science fiction, what other authors do this well? You don’t have to look far, people like J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman are great for this, and I’m betting you’ve read either Harry Potter or His Dark Materials — and if you haven’t, why? Hagrid, Dobby, Luna, Dumbledore and loads of other character’s in the wizarding world are fleshed out in this way, and Pullman uses the between-dialogue text really well to deepen our understanding of both Lyra and the world she lives in. And that’s the other point: dialogue doesn’t have to build up the character, it can frame our understanding of the world.

For a bit of fun, I’ll make an example of my own.

“Are you ready?” Linda asked.

“Almost,” said George. He was tying his laces, as he had been for the last few minutes and Linda was angry because she thought they’d miss the funeral.

So that’s, I think we can agree, a bit of a boring piece of text. But watch what happens when you play with the words between the dialogue…

Linda crossed her arms. “Are you ready yet?” she huffed, glaring down at George. “We don’t want to miss it.”

“Almost,” he replied with a smirk, purposefully tying his laces slowly to spite his mum in the desperate hope he’d get out of going to her friend’s funeral.

Compare the two texts. The first reads in a drab sort of a way, the fact they’re going to a funeral is just bare information, the dialogue is uninteresting and until we read that Linda is angry, we don’t get any personality. The second, by comparison, flows in a nicer way. We know a lot more in a much smaller space and none of the information is dumped on us, it is all reasoned by something else in the text.

The changes are simple enough, and really easy to do. Substituting the word “said” for a word with some meat or substance, like huffed, immediately gives us the image this person is annoyed. Her body language reinforces this, her arms are crossed and she’s glaring down at George.

George is no longer just slow at tying his laces, but he is doing it for a reason and the smirk he hides from Linda, who we now know is his mum, implies he is cheeky in some way. But now we have all this information all wrapped up into a little ball, we’re able to give you bonus content with little effort. Linda is George’s mum, the funeral is for her friend, and George actively wants to avoid this funeral.

These small things often make me love or hate a book, and it is worth noting that the depth which you do into is largely decided by your target audience. If you’re writing a children’s book then filling your text with content and subtleties isn’t that necessary (though it can help you to deliver commentaries in subtext, as is done quite well by people like Philip Reeve), but if you’re writing for older audiences then this kind of re-jigging can really bring your characters and world to life.

There are, of course, loads of things which tie into this, and this isn’t a comprehensive guide in any way, but hopefully it helps you to, in some way, improve your own work. I’d also like to note that this kind of thing is something you’ll likely pick up if you read a lot, and I’d like to echo the words of Stephen King who says a voracious reader makes a great writer.

I hope this has been useful in some way, and if there’s anything I have missed or got wrong then please let me know either in the comments or by getting in touch through my contact page. I love to get feedback of all sorts and love to have discussions about these kinds of things!

Dialogue: Maximum Effort!

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Published by cbpowellwrites

I'm a writer of science-fiction, fantasy epics, and other speculative fiction works and have a little blog focused on writing and how to become a better writer. Hopefully it is helpful to others, and I'd love to hear more feedback and have more in-depth discussions on all thing creativity. Before turning to writing I worked for a number of years as a chef, following on from my time as a writing and performing guitarist in the South West of England. Perhaps I will upload some music from these days at some point...

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