30 April, 2020 | By Goldie Alexander
There is more to good dialogue that breaking up a pattern on a page.
Dialogue is a way to show rather than tell.Dialogue adds immediacy to your narrative
Dialogue and character are interlinked in that dialogue reveals character.
Dialogue can cut pages of description and fill in background.
Dialogue + carefully inserted action = lively paced reading.
But one of the most difficult aspects for writing for kids is getting what they say and how they say it, right. If we were to check on current teenage usage, we might find words like salty, (meaning to be negative,) yet (meaning to be cool), and fam, (describing your current group of friends). But should the characters we are writing about use those terms? Teens invent language to separate themselves from grown-ups, and rightly so. It’s all a part of growing up and becoming independent. But if we use them, youngsters will quickly find other modes of expression and the words will become irrelevant.
The second problem is that many novels take a long time to be published, and there’s nothing quicker than colloquialisms, clothes, and music to date a novel unless it’s historical or science fiction.
You may have noticed how many youngsters start a sentence with ‘like’ even if the word is entirely irrelevant to what they are saying. It’s an opener usually ignored. But dialogue is our chief way of ‘show don’t tell’ and brings our characters to life. Perhaps using ‘Like’ to start a sentence can be added very occasionally, but only to establish character.
Dialogue shouldn’t go on too long. If that happens, you should probably be writing a play. The best dialogue is brief. There’s no need to go into lengthy exchanges to reveal an important truth about the characters, what motivates them, or how they view the world. Otherwise, the reader can lose track of who is saying what. Also using multiple ‘he says’, and ‘she says’ is stultifying. Find other verbs to help establish characters and fill in more detail.
Dialogue that goes on for too long can feel like a tennis match with the reader switching between characters. Lengthy dialogue can be exhausting for the reader and sound more like a lecture. For the characters to speak to each other, cut dialogue down to the minimum. Above all, don’t waste your dialogue with small talk unless it leads to a new development. In the real world, small talk fills in an awkward silence, but in the world of your novel, the only dialogue to include is the kind that reveals something necessary about the character or plot.
If you want to show that your character doesn’t like awkward pauses, give a scene description. ‘Yes, ‘said Benny. Outside, the rain grew stronger…. Instead of using a long exchange, show the character’s discomfort by describing how she taps her fingers against the windowpane. Or sighs deeply. Or stares into the distance. Or gulps before saying… Or reddens angrily…
Don’t include small talk. Instead, pick exchanges that capture the moment. Small talk is understood, and the reader should dive into the action as soon as possible.
While you can certainly use dialogue to learn more about your characters, you shouldn’t use it to give too much information. If the characters (and reader) already knows that part of the story, then the other characters shouldn’t repeat it unless it adds to the plot.
If you must give information, don’t do it in dialogue. Not only is it awkward, it brings the story to an unnecessary halt. So… what’s the difference between giving too much information and revealing what is relevant? The difference is that giving too much at once is left for the reader to sort out. Relevant information is more subtle and best given a little at a time.
Give your characters a unique way of speaking.
- Every writer knows to ‘Show, Don’t Tell. When writing dialogue, it’s easy to tell what the characters are feeling instead of showing it.
Benny is furious. Why won’t Amy say what she’s thinking?
Benny’s cheeks redden. Instead of answering, Amy looks away.
2. Use body language to show what’s happening. Body language is an important part of dialogue and should be written into every scene. It gives the reader important clues:
Benny becomes angry.
Benny’s eyes narrow and his lips tighten. He forces himself to breathe deeply.
3. Don’t underestimate your reader. The reader likes to see the scene instead of being told what to think.
Benny’s mother isn’t happy with him.
Mom continues to fill the dishwasher, her mouth set in a straight line.
4. Most people, including your characters, aren’t always aware of how they feel. And sometimes, what they say is different from what they feel. Use your dialogue to reveal character, but not always directly. To create a realistic interaction between your characters, you must accept that most people leave a lot unsaid.
‘That’s fine,’ Benny said slowly. Does Amy like him as much as she says she does? Can she be trusted?
Dialogue should reveal relevant information about your characters. The right dialogue will give the reader insight into how they feel, and what motivates him or her to act. It must help the reader understand the relationship between characters. It must move a story forward. After each conversation or exchange, the reader should be one step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of a story. Dialogue can either add to your story or seriously detract from it.
Viewing the action through the major character’s eyes will help give your account more colour. If the characters live in the past, their language/dialogue must suit the times in which they live. But please don’t make the mistake of writing dialogue as if the reader is back then. The odd word or two will establish your epoch or era. Anything more will detract from your story.
Read your work aloud. If you are tripping over your words, if it doesn’t sound right, it’s not going to sound right to the reader. Even though you’re not capturing every part of a conversation, it should sound like an actual person said it.
A final caution: Beware of your characters sounding too knowledgeable, too busy dotting their ‘I’s and ‘Q’s. It’s been my experience that lawyers have the toughest time writing convincing dialogue for youngsters. What they write might be technically correct, but isn’t how people speak, at least not outside a courtroom.