Last week, for the final #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post of the year, I discussed how to find your character’s voice. It only seemed fitting that this week, I write about what to do with that voice once you have found it. That’s right, I’m talking dialogues.
Dialogues (and accompanying actions, of course) make up the parts of a novel I prefer to read most. In fact, they were a major determinant in the selection of my favorite authors. The more dialogues a story offers, the quicker I fly through it. Because that is precisely one of the advantages that dialogues provide – the ability to move the plot forward. Dialogues reveal new information and secrets that may deepen the conflict or bring about resolution. They make the reading easier by breaking up blocks of expositing prose and instead present a sense of unfolding action, quickening the pace in turn. In fact, did you know that, when perusing books in a store before purchase, readers often look for the amount of white space in the layout to determine how much dialogue the story contains and thus how quick a read it might be? I wonder if that is considered cheating, though.
Dialogues also have the ability to make characters seem more real. For one, real people don’t spend every waking hour observing and contemplating the world around them. No, they converse, they take action. But not only does adding dialogues to the story makes the characters come alive but it also provides a tool to reveal more about the characters. You can expose a lot more about a character’s backstory (and in a much more interesting way) by injecting habits, thoughts and beliefs, dialects and accents, vernaculars and technical jargons, etc. in a few quick dialogues than would be necessary with endless passages of exposition. Dialogues are a medium to strengthen a character’s voice, making it more distinct and consistent over usage, as well as to express the dynamics of the relationships they have with other characters.
There’s a lot you can do with dialogues. And as with any ambitious instrument, they are tricky. Some writers have a natural ability to write interesting dialogues – Jane Austen, Jennifer Crusie, and Julia Quinn to name a few of my favorites; others have to work at it. For the most part, it really requires an observant pair of ears. Yup, eavesdrop until you get the hang of emulating the way people speak. Or else, the following tips may come in handy:
Expositing. It is necessary to remember that people don’t constantly launch into soliloquies or solo productions in their day-to-day lives. The “di” in dialogue signifies an exchange of continuously flowing discourse between two or more persons, and therefore, should not be generally used by a character to narrate the story to another. Even when one character is in the middle of describing an event, other character(s) present should be reacting and responding – unless there really is a podium involved. But even so, keep the presentation short and cover it mostly through brief narratives.
Using fillers. Then again, not everything in real life should be imitated in art. While people often dawdle in small talks before getting to the meat of their conversation, there is little need to weigh down the dialogue in fiction with small talks between characters. If it is not revealing anything important about the plot or characters, ixnay on the chitchats.
Over narrating. Another mistake is giving blow-by-blow accounts of actions that surround the dialogue. Suppose a character throws a tantrum, saying something hateful to another character followed by a walk-out, there is no need to explain the character is angry. The dialogue and actions are sufficient. Let your characters show the readers what they feel and mean; you stick to editing.
The right dialogue tags. Which brings us to dialogue tags. With an endless supply of adverbs, it is often tempting to use the “he exclaimed” and “she retorted”. However, sometimes the “he said” and “she said” suffice. Using too many variations of dialogue tags may become obtrusive, and thus, distracting. Once in the flow of the dialogue, readers much rather forgo of all the additional explanation of how the characters are conducting their exchange; some of it sort of ebbs and flows into the momentum.
Injecting actions. Then again, sometimes action narrations may be used to replace dialogue tags. For example, in a scenario where the hero and heroine are immersed in serious flirtation, their body language can speak volume more than mere dialogue tags:
Eric tilted his head towards Vanessa, a corner of his mouth tipping up suggestively. “How do you feel about taking this conversation to someplace more private?”
Forgoing dialogue tags altogether. Again, sometimes when the dialogue between two characters picks up momentum, after initially setting up the format to show which paragraph of dialogue is being spoken by whom, the dialogue tags may be abandoned:
Don’t be so judgy,” Shabnam advised after putting some distance between them and the boys.
Obaira watched where they were walking to avoid making eye contact with her cousin. “What do you mean?”
“Here’s the most handsome boy in our batch paying you so much attention and you are doing your best to put him off. If I know you – and I do – that means you have something on your mind and it’s not pretty.”
Her cousin did know her too well. “Well, don’t you think it’s suspicious that he starts paying me attention right after I won the contest?” she whispered, looking over her shoulders to make sure the boys wouldn’t overhear. “I mean, we barely ever spoke before – other than to exchange a couple of class notes, that is.”
“I would think that that just proves like is attracted to like.”
“For a nerd, you’re pretty slow on the uptake.”
Shabnam rolled her doe-eyes. “Well, he is the top student in our class and you the top girl.”
~ Excerpt from Bad Daughter by Yours Truly
However, notice even while most of the alternate paragraphs did not have dialogue tags or action narrations, every once in a while I reinstated a tag or action to re-acquaint the reader with the character speaking a specific dialogue. While forgoing dialogue tags can help quicken the pace, going without them for too long can also make the sequence confusing.
Getting grammatical. Going back to the realism of dialogues, also important to remember that most people aren’t overly critical of using correct grammar in their everyday conversation. Vernacularly speaking, it is not “The King and I” but more “Me and the King”. So, depending on the education level and upbringing (and sometimes the era) of your character, best if they speak the way people of their time and culture would speak in an everyday setting.
Signs of hesitation. But then, in our every day, we do tend to fumble for the correct words a lot as we speak. Not the right move when writing dialogues. While using an “err” or “um” on occasion is okay (particularly when trying to emphasize a character’s hesitation or confusion), it is quite unnecessary in the general use and only serves to slow down the momentum we hope to provide through dialogues. Remember, we are trying to keep things real, not transcribing a court procession.
Phonetic spelling. Again, in a bid to inject realism, we may be tempted to write dialogues exactly the way they would sound when a character speaks in their dialect or accent. However, unless it is relevant to the plot or the traits of a particular character, we can stick to the generally accepted spellings for words. For example, in Harry Potter, Hagrid’s dialogues are heavily peppered with his West County accent to create the illusion of a less-than-sophisticated blundering-but-bighearted half-giant who “managed to learn to speak English” – it is an important trait that defines Hagrid and is also relevant for the sociological and “racial” divide in the plot. However, while the wizards all come from places far and wide in the United Kingdom, few others are seen to speak with accents because with such a varied cast of characters, it would make the reading material very confusing and arduous once we are done translating what everyone says.
Character names. This pertains to both the address within the dialogue and the using character names with the dialogue tags. The first is obvious: we do not continuously address the people we speak with by their names once the people in the conversation is already identified; we just keep talking by facing them or throw out our statements openly for anyone present to respond to. The second, with regards dialogue tags and action narrations, once the paragraph sequence is established to show who the alternate speakers are, characters names may sometimes be replaced by subject pronouns: “he said” or “she said”.
Consistent punctuations. It is an unfortunately-common mistake in manuscripts where authors keep mixing up which quotation marks they use to bracket dialogues. If you are using double quotation for your dialogues, stick to it. Don’t keep switching between double and single quotation marks at different parts of your novel. Even if you are undecided when you start drafting, by the time your manuscript has been edited and ready for submission/publication, your dialogue format should maintain a modicum of consistency.
One eye on the voice. Speaking of consistency, it is important to provide each character their unique and distinct voice, to be retained throughout the story. Characters cannot be slipping in and out of their… well, their characters. Also, the characters cannot all sound the same. Remember, the character’s voice is an extension of their psyche and therefore if everyone had a similar voice (ipso facto similar psyche), there would be no conflict, right?
Yeah, follow all these rules and you should be good. Piece of cake!