Do You Hear The Voices?

Dialogue should be short, snappy, and punchy. Image: photostock /

Dialogue that is short, snappy, and punchy, engages other characters as well as the reader. Dialogue is meant to be experienced, not studied. Halting over a line of dialogue can interrupt the reader’s experience.” ~~ Sol Stein

At a recent writer’s conference, an agent said dialogue could make the difference in making a request for more of a writer’s work. She takes the first five pages of a manuscript and looks for the white space created by dialogue. Then she puts the manuscript aside and picks up the next one.

From that conversation, I gathered dialogue is an important part of novel writing. Internal monologue is not dialogue. So, even if no one else is in the room, the character should talk aloud to himself, or to his pet.

Conversations in real life often have little or no purpose. In fiction, that’s a killer. What do you hear as the characters meet and greet? Is it meaningless chitchat? Or are they talking about anything and everything to avoid the deeper subject they know they should discuss? That’s great. Avoidance dialogue is called subtext.

Who’s talking? Do the characters sound alike? Are they predictable? Do they always say what you’d expect them to say?

If so, the writer’s in trouble. You see, dialogue has to sound natural, but it also has to be more condensed and much more interesting than everyday language.

Info dumps are boring. Just as you don’t enjoy listening to a person who talks on and on without giving others a chance to get a word in edgewise, neither do your readers. Most exchanges in dialogue should be brief. Consider using five word exchanges or less in your dialogue. Avoid using more than three sentences without a break or at least an action tag on the part of the speaker.

Can the reader visualize the characters? Characters don’t talk in a vacuum. To avoid the talking heads syndrome show us what they’re doing. Is Mary cooking dinner? Is LeRoy chopping wood? And by the way, is the ax dull?

Speaking of what’s happening, in your own writing, don’t mix the actions of one character with the dialogue of another. Be sure each speaker gets his own paragraph. Even if the character only uses one word. Make it easy for your reader to know who is talking.

And while we’re on the subject of give and take between characters, teach them to give another character a chance to react. Short dialogue paragraphs leave that coveted white space and increase pacing.

Last but not least, dialogue should move the story along. Do the characters have an agenda? Does dialogue reveal the different sides of an issue?

For dialogue to do its job, it needs to create an emotional effect in the reader. How much of the dialogue reveals disagreements and misunderstandings that affect the other characters’ goals? Does it increase suspense and uncertainty?

Q4U: Would you care to share a tip for stronger dialogue?

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