For those who stay tuned into our newsletter, you will have noticed that we include a discussion prompt each month. Last month, KWL authors shared their insights on character development and this month we received solid reflections on dialogue writing.
Approach Dialogue Like an Actor
“I approach it like an actor would, putting myself inside the character’s head, becoming the character, taking a moment to say to myself, how this character is feeling at this moment and more crucially, do they trust who they’re talking to? What’s their agenda? Do they want to be straight or are they hiding something, like their feelings, or facts, or something else? There are a lot of layers to think about when you fill the character’s shoes and before you speak as that character, their personality, their relationship with who they’re speaking with and the circumstances within the storyline … I’ve become particularly sensitive to characters speaking since I’ve been putting my books on audio.”
Lessons on Dialogue
Dialogue is made up of two basic components: the words the characters speak, and the tags. The speaker tag – the ‘he said, she said’ shows who is speaking. In addition, you’ll want to convey HOW the speech is being delivered. There are two basic ways to do this. One is with an action tag, or beat. The other is with an emotional tag, or interior monologue. The former lets us see what the character is doing. The latter shows us what the character is thinking or feeling.
The following is a scene from Hidden Fire where Randy, a police detective, approaches a crime scene.
Dialogue to Control Pacing
- Faster pace — fewer beats, or interior monologue. Tags are short, used primarily to keep the characters straight. Short paragraphs. **With more than 2 people in a scene, attributes are necessary so readers can follow.
- Slower pace — more tags, beats, and interior monologue
“Natural dialogue may be one of the most difficult things to master as an author. When I worked as a book-doctor, probably 70% of my work circled around tightening up dialog. When I mentor aspiring authors, I tell them to visit a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Listen to the table next to you and write out their conversation as if it were dialog in a story. Add punctuation, breaks, tags, but capture a real conversation and put it down on paper. Bring out their words, then add the things happening around them. Turn it into a story. Get a feel for how that looks and feels. Later, when you write a scene, let your computer read it back to you – most programs have a text-to-speech feature. Does it sound natural? Then practice, practice, practice…”
Write Like a Playwright
Judith Pratt is a playwright, short-story writer, author of The Dry, and other novels. Note the natural flow of dialogue in this excerpt of The Skill; identify the speaker tags, action tags, and interior monologue:
Before her father could start, Rinne said. “I can’t be Sarah for you. The best I can do is find her.”
Brian shook his head. “You can’t stay here. The mainland people stole Sarah from us. They’ll steal you, too.”
“Stole her? She ran away!”
“If we hadn’t let her work with those rich folks, she’d still be here.”
Rinne glared at her father. “In high school, Sarah spent all her time flirting with boys, going to parties, and spending every weekend in town. You let her do that. Don’t blame the mainland people!” She discovered that she was yelling. Her father’s sunburned face turned redder.
“I’m sorry,” Rinne said softly. “It’s just that . . . I guess I’ve always . . . .” She didn’t want to say that she’d always been jealous of her sister, even while adoring her beauty, popularity, and importance to the Island.
Brian breathed loudly through his nose. “Whatever happened, that’s water under the bridge. We need you at home.”
“You have Gran,” said Rinne. “She’s still strong. I’m going to find Sarah.”
“I hunted for her. The police hunted for her. What can you do?”
“I can hunt for her on the internet, here at the library.”
“You can do that on the Island.”
“With Aunt Darina’s computer? It crashes every time I get on a useful website!”
“We could get another one.”
“If you can convince Great Gran,” Rinne said, know that the old lady hated the idea of another computer. “That cellish phone is bad enough,” Great Gran said. And what she said was law.
“Come home and marry Gavin. You’re the . . .” her father stopped.
“I’m the best you’ve got,” said Rinne. Her father turned even redder. “I’m of age now. I’m staying here.”
“You’re coming home,” Brian said, and grabbed Rinne by the arm.
“You gonna kidnap me? I’ll scream. All the nice tourist people will panic and call the police!”
Brian let go of her as if he had been burned.
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More on Dialogue Writing
- University professor Nathan Dodge examines conversations between fictional characters
- Paula Berinstein, author and host of The Writing Show, shares her tips