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.
My 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.
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.
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?”
“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.