It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog
She’s baaaaack. Well, sort of. Today I have an extra special treat. This is going to sound super conceited but whatever, it is MY blog 😛 . But first lemme caveat with this.
I feel I DO have a knack for predicting the next big thing. Case in point, in 1993 I was at an air show and there was an unknown all-female band I chatted with because no one was really over there. I loved their unique sound and gushed over how one member employed the banjo (an instrument forgotten at that time).
I told them I was sure they were going to be the next biggest thing in country music, and even bought some of the cheap merchandise they sold to support their music and prove I meant what I said.
That little band was The Dixie Chicks.
I’ve done this time and time again with authors and bloggers and I can tell you that if there is any sense in this world, J.E. Fishman (A.K.A. Dana Wolff) will be the next legendary author of our time. He’s already proven himself as a NYC agent and editor and he is one HELL of an author (multi-published).
Speaking of HELL, his latest release The Prisoner of Hell Gate written under the pen name Dana Wolff is by far one of the most amazing books I have ever read (and I pretty much hate everything…occupational hazard). Not only is the story sheer genius (Filed under “Stuff I Wish I Would Have Thought Of”) the prose is like fine French cooking.
If you like bare Hemingway writing with no description and lean sentences? This is not for you. But, if you are a lover of words and cannot help but GORGE on “perfect description”? Just plan on highlighting almost everything. My paper copy just became a damn coloring book. I gave up and got the audio so I would actually finish the book.
In fact, I sent J.E. a message telling him I hated him. *flops on bed* I can’t wriiiiiiiite like that. I suuuuuuuck.
Seriously, I will blog more on this book later, but OMG. Get this book and if you want a MIND-BLOWING experience? Buy it in audio. Whoever did the narration? She needs to read every book I ever listen to for like…ever.
I will stop gushing now and let J.E. take over but like many of my other blogs foretelling the future (like the ones that predicted The Big Six would shrink, that self-pub would explode, that Amazon would HAVE to open a brick-and-mortar, that stretchy pants were here to stay)…one day you will come back to this blog and go, “She was RIGHT!”
Ouch! I got a cramp from patting myself on the back!
Okay, shutting up for realz now. Today, you guys get to learn today from a true master…
Two people are sitting on a park bench. What words do they use to talk to one another?
If you answered, How the heck am I supposed to know?, you are well on your way to understanding how to construct good dialog.
You undoubtedly know, for example, that writing dialog depends upon knowing which characters are speaking, the details of their relationship, and other basic—or not so basic—characteristics they may have. What if one of these characters is mute? What if one of them is a two-year-old child?
And yet, so much dialog we see today feels so generic, so interchangeable. Why? I think that’s because dialog too often ends up working harder in service to the story—What happens next? What information does the author have to get to the reader RIGHT NOW?—than in service to the reader.
I believe that many readers want something more than only to find answers to the ever-crucial question, And then what happened?
Since our characters at times communicate directly with one another, dialog gives us a major tool that we can use to enhance our storytelling in a rounded way, not just to advance events.
Good dialog enriches the reading experience and creates greater empathy with your characters by deepening their individuality.
The main thing to remember when crafting dialog is:
Content and style are NOT two completely different things.
The way your character speaks reflects what your character wants—in that moment and in life.
Here are some simple dialog techniques to keep in mind while writing. Remember, once you’ve committed to any of these for a particular character, be consistent without overdoing things:
- Vocabulary. Big words vs small words. Technical jargon vs plain speaking. Foreign words vs straight English. Regional usage vs generic usage. Precocious vs ordinary.
- Length. Some characters are terse and others are voluble. This distinction alone can speak volumes about personality.
- Rhythm. This one’s a little harder to put one’s finger on. Listen to the voice of the character in your head. Some people speak fast and others speak slowly. How might you suggest this with phrasing?
- Formality. Here’s another aspect of speech that can suggest much about your character. Does she use profanity? Does he speak in a stilted manner? Does she use a lot of contractions?
- Verbal Tics. Maybe your character stutters or speaks with sibilance or has some other verbal tic. This can become an immediate identifier, but be careful not to overuse it.
With these tools at your command, you can begin to think about…
Three Elements of Great Dialog
#1 Your character’s fundamentals:
- Sex. “Man or woman” might imply a generalization, but perhaps your character goes against type. That would tell us something very powerful every time she opens her mouth.
- Age. As we all know, a five-year-old boy generally speaks differently from a 30-year-old man, etc.
- Physical Attributes. Perhaps your character sits in a wheelchair. What verbal techniques might she have mastered to get the attention of people who tower over her?
#2 Your character’s history:
- Upbringing in Time. People raised at different times use different vocabularies and constructions. Someone raised in the Seventies, for example, may use a very different vocabulary from a child of the Aughts.
- Social Status. While the whole concept of social status is a moving target, there is little question that some people play to or against their status (by affecting an upper-class accent or, on the other hand, being more “street” than expected). The way they choose to speak in relation to their standing in society can tell us a lot about their character.
- Education. Some people are book smart and some people attended the school of hard knocks. A Ph.D. often speaks differently from a high school dropout. Although, of course, you can also have fun playing against type here.
- Recent History. If your character recently underwent some kind of transformation (before or after the story starts), this may affect the way she speaks.
- Relationship to Other Characters in the Scene. This element is more contingent than the others, as it depends upon who else is in the scene. A woman speaks to her son differently than she speaks to her male boss. A man speaks to his female boss differently than he speaks to his girlfriend. How your protagonist speaks with subordinates, for instance, might also be very revealing of character.
#3 Your character’s wants:
- In Life and/or Story Arc. There is nothing more important in storytelling than what your characters want at any given moment and in the broader narrative arc. Therefore, it helps greatly if the nature of their dialog reflects their desires. If I kind of want a drink of water and you’re withholding it, I might be polite. If I desperately want it, I might be more direct, even rude. On the bigger canvas, if I’m racing against time to save the world from nuclear holocaust, I might choose to dispense with pleasantries. Then again, maybe not, if I have good reason to pursue another tack.
- Mood in the Scene. None of us has just one way of speaking. How a character chooses to speak at a particular moment in the story might be greatly influenced by her state of mind.
When I’m writing, I try to hear the voices of my characters in my head and remember what makes them distinct from one another. When I self-edit and rewrite, I ask myself questions like: Would that character really use that word?
With all that said, it pays to remember that a novel is entertainment and dialog is part of the entertainment. Therefore (duh) the best dialog is entertaining. Try to be clever without showing how smart you are. Follow the above guidelines AND do so in a fresh and entertaining way. Then you’ll be well on your way to crafting memorable and effective dialog.
Thank you! Please show J.E. some love in the comments with any questions or thoughts. This is a really great opportunity to talk to a fantastically talented and proven Big Five author. If you want more on dialog from J.E. check out The Big Thrill for MORE!
And remember bloggers have big hearts, short attention spans and long memories. We DO remember who shows the love! And any comments for my guest count double in the contest. What contest?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
J.E. Fishman writes screenplays and is author of 7 critically acclaimed thrillers and several nonfiction books. His latest novel, The Prisoner of Hell Gate, was written under the pen name Dana I. Wolff and published July 2016 by the Picador imprint of Macmillan.
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