Monday, May 8, 2017

Say It with Gusto

Writing dialogue seems easy enough. It's just characters talking, right? Not exactly.


Conversation between characters offers great opportunity to discreetly convey information to the reader as well as imparts bits of insight into the people who populate your story. A mediocre story can be elevated by great dialogue, and a great story can sent into the abyss of mediocrity by poor dialogue.

Much more than an exchange of words, dialogue can include body language, locale, emotion, the weather, and a host of other relevant factors that invite the reader into the scene and paint a vivid picture of the interaction. However, all such information must be delivered as an integral part of the scene and in a succinct manner. In other words, it can't be an information dump.

In real life, we often digress when we talk. When writing dialogue, we need to stick to the subject at hand. We also need to be concise, remembering that dialogue is not the same as monologue. We also need to make the talk reflect the character. A hoodlum, for example will not express himself the same way as a Wall Street banker.

One more thing—we don't need to be grammatical unless proper sentence structure reflects the character who's speaking. Why? Grammar isn't usually a priority when we're conversing.

The following examples have been adapted from the writing manual I penned several years ago. Both are in Hank's point of view. The first exchange between father and son sets the scene but misses some opportunities to provide greater insight into the POV character. The second goes a step further, using brief recollection and body language to enhance dialogue in showing internal conflict. Which one reaches out to you as a reader? How do you use dialogue to define your characters and move your story forward?

         Hank heard his daughter crying again. He ignored her.
        “Can’t you hear this baby screaming?” Luke stood in the doorway of the den, holding his baby sister.
       I’m…I’m sorry. I guess I was daydreaming. Why don’t you come in and sit down, son.”
       “I can’t sit down, Dad. I’ve got homework to do. I don’t have time to daydream, so why should you?”
       “I know you’re having a rough time. We all are. We men’ll get through this together.”
       “I miss Mom, too, but seventh grade isn’t as easy as sixth. I’ve got lots of work to make up because I was absent all last week. You should see the pile of homework on Lance’s desk.”
       “Surely, your teachers will make allowance for your mother’s funeral. I could call the school and—”
       “I can mourn on my own time—that’s what my math teacher said. But I can’t get catch up while I’m babysitting a little kid who misses her mommy and wants her daddy.”
       “She’s quiet now. Why don’t you put her back in her bed? She’ll go to sleep soon. She’s got to be worn out after all that crying.”
       “You’ve been pushing her off on Lance and me ever since Mom got sick the last time. It isn’t fair to us. I love my sister, but Lexi belongs to you, not me.”
       “Luke…” He looked up just in time to see his son’s back disappear through the doorway.
        Lexi leaned against him, her head next to his heart. He took a shaky breath, sat her on the floor, and fled the room.


        Hank pressed his hands over his ears. If only Lexi would stop screaming and go to sleep.
        Visions of her premature birth by cesarean section flashed through his mind. The doctor had urged the surgery much earlier so Laura could undergo chemo. She’d said no. He'd begged her to reconsider. She refused.
        As soon as the baby emerged, she had turned toward him, her eyes fixed on the source of the soft, deep voice that spoke to her mother. She didn’t cry, didn’t even whimper; she just watched him. Wherever they took her, she turned toward the voice that had promised to care for her no matter what.
       “Can’t you hear this baby crying?” Luke stood in the doorway, glaring at his father. Lexi’s small body convulsed with sobs against his shoulder.
        “I’m…I’m sorry. I guess I was daydreaming.”
        “About Mom?”
        “Yeah.” Hank ran his fingers through his hair.
        “I miss her, too.” Luke crossed the room and plopped the one-year-old on his father’s lap. “But I’ve got lots of homework to do because I was absent last week.”
        Hank looked away from the tears in his son’s eyes. “Surely, your teachers made allowance for your mother’s funeral.”
        “Right! I can mourn on my own time—that’s what my math teacher said. But I can’t do homework and babysit for a kid who misses her mommy and wants her daddy.”
        Hank glanced into the huge, dark eyes that gazed up at him. He turned back to his son. “Put her in her bed. She must be worn out by now.”
        “You’ve been pushing her off on me and Lance ever since Mom got sick the last time.”
        Hank turned back to the baby, who still watched him with adoring eyes. “Luke—” He looked up to see his son’s back disappear through the doorway.
        Lexi leaned against him, her head next to his heart, and began to hum. At first he didn’t believe his ears. It couldn’t be…
         In a haunting baby voice too reminiscent of her mother’s, she hit every note of the lullaby Laura had sung to her from the moment she’d learned of her conception until the week before she died.
         Tears stung his eyes. His chest tightened. I can’t do it, Laura.”
         Setting the baby on the floor, he bolted from the room.

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. She also helps new and not-so-new writers improve their skills through posts on Blood Red Pencil and offers private tutoring as well as seminars online. You can contact her through her writing website, LSLaneBooks.com. Also, you can visit her editing team at DenverEditor.com to find experienced editors in a variety of genres to help you polish your book into a marketable work.

8 comments :

  1. My favorite advice about dialogue: It is a conversation with all the boring bits removed. :)

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  2. Terrific post, Linda. When I started reading that first example, I recognized some of my earliest attempts at conveying information in dialogue. That was a great example of how not to do it. Then your second was so smooth, I wanted to cheer.

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  3. Thank you, Maryann. Writing has so many learning curves; it definitely qualifies as continuing education. :-)

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  4. Very nice post, Linda. Examples are the best way to make a point, and you did by letting the reader SEE the comparison. As to what Diana said, one of Elmore Leonard's ten rules is that he leaves out what people skip over. What's left is dialogue, and that's what makes his books so good.

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    1. Examples work well for me because people do not always explain how to do something in a way that is fully understood. Seeing is believing, as the saying goes. I'm not from Missouri, but show me anyway.

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  5. In was interesting that it wasn't so much the change in dialogue (the actual spoken words) as the carefully layered in backstory and action, i,e, the baby's humming, that made all the difference. A good thing to remember. Thanks.

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    1. When she was just a few months old, my youngest granddaughter hummed "You Are My Sunshine," a song her mother had often sung to her since birth. My daughter, who was shocked to hear it, said the baby never missed a note. When the premature daughter of a long-time friend was born, she followed with her eyes the voice of her father, who was in the delivery room. I was fascinated by both incidents, which is why I used them to bring life and emotion to this piece. Fiction needs to mirror reality if it is to make the reader suspend disbelief, and fascinating (sometimes terrifying) realities surround us daily. Isn't it fun to be a writer? :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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