by Michelle Barker, Author, Editor & Workshop Presenter at the Fall 2013 Vancouver Junior Authors Writers Conference
You’ve probably all heard the writing rule, “Show, don’t tell.” What it means is that readers remember what they learn about a character by seeing them in action, rather than being told about them. Dialogue is a great way to put this rule into practice.
What we say (or don’t say), how we say it and to whom, reveals an enormous amount about who we are as people. Good dialogue can accomplish one or more of the following:
- reveal character
- clarify relationships (does this couple really get along, or not?)
- show characters in confrontation
- advance the action of the story by revealing new information
- allow readers to witness characters lying to each other.
Good dialogue changes up the pace in a story. It eases those long blocks of description or narration. Done well, it’s a joy to read. Done poorly, it grates like nails on a chalkboard. The challenge in writing good dialogue is that it must sound like real speech but it can never wander aimlessly the way real speech often does.
Some pitfalls in writing dialogue include:
- chitchat, or, the conversation that goes nowhere (yes, that’s how we often speak in real life, but that doesn’t make it interesting to read in a story!). A good conversation should build towards something
- overusing names
- overusing adverbs
- being predictable
- using dialogue as a way of slipping your backstory in
- repeating in dialogue what the reader has just learned in narration
- like, um, you know…we may say them in real life, but they don’t work in dialogue
- going on, and on, and on, and – you get the picture.
Writers sometimes forget that action is part of dialogue, too. These are called beats, those little moments before or after a character has spoken in which they perform an action or a gesture. Start paying attention to those when you read and you’ll notice how much these beats can accomplish. Think of a woman who says, “I’m not angry,” and then slams her glass onto the table. The words lie; the beat tells the truth.
Sometimes we forget, too, that dialogue has to take place somewhere. We have to ground our speakers in a setting so that the reader can not only hear the conversation but imagine it taking place.
Do all of your characters sound the same? It’s important to vary speech patterns, use a sort of shorthand to tag your characters so that the reader can tell, through the dialogue itself, who is speaking to whom.
Did you know that silence can be as useful as speech when it comes to writing dialogue? Imagine if one character says, “I miss you,” and the other just…doesn’t respond. Sometimes silence can speak more loudly than words.
The best way to improve your dialogue writing is, of course, to read good dialogue and then practice writing it yourself. But the second best way is to eavesdrop. You can learn a lot by listening to people talk. Our speech reflects unspoken things about us (our age, level of education, our attitudes towards things). You will also notice that people often don’t say what they mean, and they don’t often listen to each other. A character that always says what she means tends to come across as generic.
When you write dialogue, it’s crucial to read it out loud. You’ll catch your own slips, and you’ll probably surprise yourself with the music of your words. We’ll be doing a lot of out-loud work at the workshop, and hopefully some writing as well, so bring pen and paper. It should be lots of fun!
Michelle Barker has published non-fiction, short fiction and poetry. Her first novel, a young adult fantasy called The Beggar King, was published in the spring of 2013 by Thistledown Press. Michelle is one of the workshop presenters at the Fall 2013 Junior Authors Writer’s Conference. You can visit Michelle’s website at michellebarker.ca.