On Dialogue

dialogue bubblesThere is much for me to learn!  So very much to learn!  The more I read about writing dialogue, the tougher it seems to do well.

So here is what I’ve figured out so far.

What dialogue isn’t:

  • a way to relay information to your reader.  That really stinks, because we aren’t suppose to “tell” our readers either.  Somehow we are suppose to sneak information into the text without being obvious about it.
  • a recap of street dialogue.  Real conversation often gets heavy in the kind of details that would bore a reader to no end.  We can probably think of a friend that could use adding commas and periods when they talk.
  • natural.  Alice LaPlante said, “You want to make it sound natural, but that doesn’t mean that it is.”
  • filler space

What dialogue is:

  • reader friendly.  Dialogue quickens the pace, puts white space on the page, and gives the reader a little relief.
  • balanced with action and description.  You are not writing a play (talking to myself here).  Dialogue cannot stand alone.  The full picture is painted when dialogue is followed with action and description.
  • moves the story forward.  It has to have a purpose that is related to the plot.
  • filled with subtext.  Trust your reader to be able to read between the lines.
  • built on the history of the characters.  Consider the things that you don’t need to say when talking to your best friend that you would if you were talking to an acquaintance.  Or when you are meeting someone new, the guarded superficial dialogue still carries a tone.  There is hidden dialogue built on history, intentions, and hopes and that will be true with characters.
  • conveys emotions without telling the emotion.
  • elliptical.  I heard Lin Oliver say this before, but I’m not super clear on it.  What I understand this to mean is speakers respond not just to what was said, but also to what wasn’t said.  They interpret the line, the subtext, the history, the intentions and tone, and reply with all of this in mind.  So the characters are filling in the gaps in the conversation in their minds and reply to each other in this form.  Is this right?
  • unique to each character.  Each character must be well defined in your head so the dialogue sounds like him/her.
  • brief
  • what is said is a glimmer of what isn’t.  And sometimes it is a complete fabrication.  Our characters are far more mysterious than most people are in real life.  But if we write dialogue that is true to how people really sound, our characters are flat, puppet-like, and the veil that has been hiding the author is ripped to shreds.

I think there is a giant asterisk over this whole thing.  Know your reader.  If you are writing for young readers, even as old as middle grade,  a little more needs to be transparent.  We don’t want to frustrate our reader to the point they put down the book.  Especially when they may only be reading because it is SSR (silent sustained reading) time and they have to read, so they picked your book off the stack.  Writing for kids is tough.  There are many who are resistant to reading for many reasons.  We want to intrigue, but not frustrate.

That was the ol’ teacher slipping out.  But as I write, I keep in mind very specific students who struggled to read, would never do it on their own, but nonetheless enjoyed literature circle.

So with that it mind.  Next time: Making your story worth talking about.

Til then, enjoy playing with words!

One more thing – What children’s book has great dialogue that is worth studying?

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