by Annette Lyon
I can probably thank Miss Winn, my high school creative writing teacher, for making dialogue one of my passions. She's the one who assigned the screenplay that forced me to write nothing BUT dialogue for pages on end and made me fall in love with what I am now convinced is one of the best ways to show and not tell.
Dialogue almost feels like cheating, it's such an easy tool to use for showing and not telling. Just throw your characters into a scene and get them talking, and their characteristics pop off the page.
Want to show that a boy friend is a jerk? Don't say it. Throw him in a scene with his girl friend and have him TALK like a jerk. If a young woman is shy, don't say so. Put her in a scene where she's forced to speak shyly.
Below are three of many keys to great dialogue.
#1: Keep the dialogue true to your character.
In other words, don't have your characters talking in a manner that doesn't fit who they are. I recently read a book where a character who was supposedly an elderly, uneducated, rural immigrant started spouting off in eloquent English.
Hmmm. Try again.
Each of your characters should sound a little different from one another, if not because of their background (gender, age, education, geography, etc.), then just because of their personality.
My upcoming novel has three brothers and two sisters who hang out together quite a bit, and I had to make sure that each had enough different personality traits that they stood out so that readers wouldn't be confused.
#2: Watch out for motivation and progression issues.
Sometimes you know where a scene needs to end up. It's easy to force the dialogue to go that direction even when it's unnatural for the conversation to go that way. Or maybe you, the author, don't realize that one character's response isn't really a natural reply to the previous character's statement/question.
It helps to go back and reread your dialogue, ignoring for the moment anything you wrote in between and keeping an eye out for whether it has a logical, realistic flow. (Sometimes that's because there's a good chunk of description or thought between the two sections of dialogue, but sometimes not.)
An example I read in a book recently: A character says, "I am so sorry."
The response? "No. I don't know."
Huh? I had to reread the passage, including what came before and after several times to figure out what the author meant. (I'm still not sure.)
#3: Avoid "Info Dump."
There is a time and a place to give reader vital information, but try not to do it very often in dialogue, and never in large, obnoxious chunks or in the, "As you know, Bob," way, where characters tell each other information they already possess. People don't talk like that. If Jane already knows that Betty's husband is John, then Betty would never talk to her referring to him as, "My husband John." She'd just say, "John."
My favorite example of telling the audience crucial information in a non-info-dumpy way came from an episode of M*A*S*H, when a wounded soldier has some bloodwork done. Hawkeye has seen the slide in the microscope and knows the result. BJ comes in and sees it too. Now both doctors know what the patient has. They're both visibly upset about it. The audience doesn't know the diagnosis.
How do the writers tell us without it being an info dump? Brilliantly.
Depressed, BJ looks at the microscope again, and Hawkeye says, "It doesn't matter how long you keep looking at it. It's still going to be leukemia."
We'll address other tools for dialogue in another blog later. Until then, dust off that dialogue tool box and bring your characters to life!