WriteSpa #48 – Great Dialog Part 3/3

WriteSpa – An Oasis for Writers

Just as in life itself, there are three key components to every story, no matter how short or long, or simple or complex: People. Space. Time. In other words, characters, situations, events. For a story to work well, all three of these have to connect with each other in a relevant way. If you include an event that has nothing to do with the story, it is obviously disposable. The same with dialog: Wherever you include dialog, it has to be relevant to the unfolding of the story. If it’s not relevant, cut it out.

So this is the third part of the Writing Great Dialog triad: you’ll need to pare down your dialog to its bone. You’re going to edit out every extraneous phrase, cough, word, even comma. If it’s not relevant to showing us what your characters want (motive) and how their relationship conflicts with that motive, it shouldn’t be in there. There’s no room in a good story for pointless chitchat. Your dialog needs to drive your story along, reveal the heart of your characters, show us something surprising or crucial.

If you’re not sure whether something is relevant, ask yourself why your characters are talking with each other, and provide an answer. Then see if the phrase is relevant.

Some tips:

Don’t forget that we rarely say a person’s name when we’re speaking to them. Make clear who’s speaking by using tags or with some sort of action – don’t cheat by saying, “Well, Alonso, so how are you today?” Also, when you use a question mark in the dialog, do you really need to add ‘he asked’? Let your dialog speak for itself.

It may seem picky, but punctuation matters in writing dialog. Use periods correctly, and remember that periods, commas, question and exclamation marks all go inside the final close-quotation mark. (In the U.S., anyway.)

Here are a couple of other punctuation tips: If someone is interrupted, use an em dash. You can use em dashes to interrupt yourself as well – like this, as a side thought – but then go back to the main point you’re trying to make. Don’t overdo it! Use ellipsis if the thought isn’t complete … or you’re implying vagueness … or some other drifty mood …

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Writing Practice: Three parts again!

1. Edit

Read each word, each phrase, and ask “Is this word vital?” If it isn’t, scratch it out.

Don’t try to rewrite a phrase; be brave about slicing it out and tossing it aside. Most speech is half as long (at least) as it’s usually written.

2. Read Your Dialog Out Loud

Find a closet or take a walk in the woods where no one can hear you except for wild animals. Then read your dialog out loud as loudly as you possibly can (not shouting though). Listen carefully, try to stay neutral and detached. How does it sound, heard that loudly? This is an excellent way to test your work. If you can bear to hear it resounding through a canyon, then it will probably stand up to other people reading it.

3. Listen to Someone Else Read It Out Loud

Finally, ask a friend to sit at your kitchen table and read your dialog out loud. (This time at a normal pitch.) You can give them a brief introduction to the two characters, particularly mood and age. Tell your friend, “Alonso is an old man who’s lost a valuable piece of jade; he’s pretty upset about it. Sally, his maid, stole it, but is pretending to be concerned and helpful.” That way your friend will know that his voice should sound petulant and cross with one character and silky with the other. You’ll be able to hear if your words match the tone the dialog is supposed convey.

Listen carefully – not so much for the words, but for the quality of the back and forth. If a word jumps out at you as being slightly awkward, it probably needs to be tossed or changed.

Dialog is a place in writing where the words should become almost invisible and only their implication is revealed.

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