Daring Dialogue

I have to confess that dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. It also is the easiest for me. Often times when I start a scene, I’ll just lay out the dialogue first.

CoupleFightingMy love of dialogue likely stems from my real life job as a pediatric ER nurse. Communication in the ER is very quick and to the point. Cutting at times. There is little room for fluffing up someone’s feathers emotionally when you’re trying to save a life.

At the most recent ACFW conference in Indianapolis, I was fortunate to take James Scott Bell’s class called Quantum Story where he touched on several different areas to take your novel to the next level. Jim is a great teacher and I highly recommend any of his classes or books on writing (of which there are many).

One area Jim discussed was his eight essentials of dialogue and I’m going to list them here. Remember, these come from a master teacher and storyteller and not little ole me who is still learning a lot about writing.

Good dialogue:

1. Is essential to the story. Fictional dialogue should never sound like “real life,” where lots of mundane facts are often communicated. “Hi.” “How are you?” “I’m fine—how are you?” It should communicate something inherently necessary to the story.

2. It flows from one character to the other.

3. It should have conflict or tension. There is the overall story conflict but then there is also microtension. I first heard this term from Donald Maass and he explains it as the tension amond words, sentences, and paragraphs that propels the reader to keep turning pages.

4. Just the right tone.

5. Just right for each character. All your story peeps should not sound the same. How can you differentiate between them so the reader can identify them? The best example I’ve seen of this type of characterization is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Each chapter is in a different character’s POV but she never is obvious about it—like putting the character’s name as a chapter heading (which I have seen done). The characterization/dialogue is so unique in differing POVs that you don’t need extra help to identify the character.

6. Unpredictable.

7. Compressed. Characters shouldn’t talk for paragraphs at length. Give the reader some white space as relief.

8. There should be subtext.

Here is one of my favorite exchanges in Peril, my latest medical thriller. The lead heroine, Morgan Adams, is not sure she’s all that capable of holding onto this life. Her husband, Tyler, worries about her committing suicide and he’s just come home and found a bloodied knife on the counter. This section occurs just after she’s found alive.

  “You can’t scare me like that again. You are killing me with this thoughtlessness you have for your life.”

  “You found the knife?”

  “Yes, I found it! And the blood dripping down the counter.” He grabbed each of her hands and caressed his thumbs over her pulse points of uncut skin.

   “It’s not my blood.”

   “Then whose is it?”

   “Our neighbor’s.”

   “And if I ask her?”

   “You don’t believe me?”

    He combed his fingers through his hair. “Morgan, it’s as if you’re holding on to the cliff with one hand and lifting your fingers up one at a time.”

   She brushed past him and headed into the master bedroom. “I wouldn’t have done anything today.”

   And just like that, all the tightness in his chest returned.

What do you think? What are some techniques you incorporate to write powerful dialogue?

This post first appeared on the ACFW blog. Hope you’ll check it out for more great posts about writing.

7 Replies to “Daring Dialogue”

  1. I write nonfiction, not fiction, but I have such an appreciation for good dialogue! I do think it would be one of the hardest aspects of writing fiction: how do you make it sound realistic, snappy, interesting, etc.?

    One of my favorite writers of dialogue is the novelist Elinor Lipman (she wrote The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, The Inn at Lake Devine, My Latest Grievance). It’s zippy, quick, meaningful, and such a pleasure to read.

    1. Hi Ginny,

      I’ll have to check out some of those novelists.

      Personally, what I think makes great dialogue is saying all those things you would never say. It makes life so much more interesting! Sadly, I sometimes do this in real life and it gets me into trouble. I should just stick to doing it in books.

  2. I was amazed to read that the dialogue should not sound like “real life.” I am currently writing a novel and it is a teen with her aunt. My critique group has criticized the dialogue as being mundane chatter. I think I get the drift of their comments now as I realize dialogue must be concise and condensed to get the story moving. I’ll work on this angle and see if I can rework scenes to get to the point. Great points on dialogue here.

    1. Thanks so much for leaving a comment.

      It’s true– fictional dialogue rarely sounds like how we communicate in “real life”. It’s really a vehicle to move the story forward and create tension. So, if it’s not doing that, it does need to be changed.

      Keep refining your craft!!

  3. Thanks for this fantastic post, concluding with an exchange from your book.

    In real life while it’s routine to ask someone “How are you?” the question practically begs an easy answer. It’s easy for me to ask someone how he or she is doing without giving my question much thought, just like it’s easy for me to quickly write a dialog that doesn’t really say anything. In life it’s so much more interesting to really find out how someone is doing by phrasing a -how are you- question differently. When dialog is tweaked, true emotions are revealed and a story happens.

  4. You could also skip over all the mundaneness by using narration to summarize their conversation (“They exchanged greetings, asked about each other’s families, and then moved on to the real subject at hand.”)

    In TV and movies, simple exchanges can be loaded with subtext meaning – the way a character says something, the look on their face, what they do as they say it – the key is choosing when and how to use it. Something as simple as “How are you?” can have multiple layers of hidden meaning, depending on the situation. Be creative – something which would otherwise be boring could be crucial in the right circumstances.

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