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Writing GREAT dialogue

By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle

Good dialogue makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping.

Great dialogue adds a whole new dimension to the reader’s experience. Maybe two. When you read great dialogue, it feels almost cinematic, like you’re watching it on a screen. You aren’t merely hearing the words. You feel like you’re part of it, like you’re right there with them, watching the whole scene unfold. Great dialogue makes the scene not just appear realistic, but real. Just as real, and just as vividly remembered, as any real conversation you were ever part of. Great dialogue jumps right off the paper, puts its arm around you, and pulls you into the discussion, urging you, “Hey, you gotta watch what’s goin’ down here!”.

The reason great dialogue feels three-dimensional, is that it is!

You’ve heard that when writing a visual scene, you should try to incorporate all five senses as much as you can. Dialogue really does have three dimensions. They are known as the three “V”’s of in-person communication:




How Much of Dialogue is Verbal?

I’ve been moderator for the South Florida Writers Association’s Fiction Critique Group for the last twelve (out of the 20 years it’s been running) and I’ve seen many members come and go. Too many of them struggle with dialogue, and it’s always because they concentrate too much on the words. That’s the Verbal part. Experts who study interpersonal communication have determined in many studies that when people talk in person, the actual words account for only about 7 percent of the overall communication.

How Much of Dialogue is Vocal?

About 38 percent of their communication is Vocal; Beyond the words, it’s the emotion embedded in how the person speaks: the tone of voice, the volume, speed, coherence can mostly be addressed with the proper speech verb, such as shout, whisper, mumble, growl, whine, etc.

Those cannot show the reader such factors as focus on message, pauses, breathiness, nasal-ness, how the stress is placed on words and syllables, the changing side-voice when the speaker includes tangential comments and anecdotes, ethnic accent, interjections (such as… Well, umm, like, y’know, when they say “okay” a lot.), rambling, ranting, hedging, circular references, repetition, and also what is implied but left unsaid, which includes allusion, innuendos, connotations, insinuations, etc. Between the vocal and the verbal components, it’s still less than half.

How Much of Dialogue is Visual?

A whopping 55 percent of the total communication is Visual. It comes from the cues we give with body language: posture, what the speaker does with their hands, arms and legs, what they’re carrying and how, how much attention they are paying to the conversation, facial expression, position, mannerisms, touchy-feeliness, closeness to the listener, eye-openness, eye-contact, eye-avoidance, bad body/breath and food smells, and other non-verbal communication, such as sighs, clenched teeth, laughing, fidgeting, checking their watch or phone, shrugging, jaw-dropping, eye-widening, raising eyebrows (one or both?), or removing or adjusting clothing and accessories (such as a hat, mask, jacket, necktie, hairbands, eyeglasses, shoes, rolling up sleeves, etc.). It’s important to remember that some of these, such as laughing, coughing, smiling, frowning, cannot be used as speech verbs. They are things a character might do while talking, but talking, they aren’t. Skilled deployment of these cues adds a whole new dimension to your scene.

Remember the Three Vs.

When you write a dialogue scene, remember the three Vs! Be sure to use all three kinds of communication, as effectively as you can.

When you compose dialogue, don’t just jump right in. Before you write the words, visualize the scene. The characters are in front of you. You are watching everything they do. Project yourself into the POV character as though you were an actor playing that character that scene and continue with the scene unfolding. Pay attention to each character’s body language, their expressions as they react to what is being said; capture the POVC’s impression of what he/she’s hearing and internal, visceral reaction: their doubts of the sincerity and veracity, thoughts about how to respond, and looking for weaknesses to use in manipulating the other characters. Sometimes, it helps to visualize which actor you would want to play that part, or an actor made of composite components of various actors. Put yourself in the position of every character you’re going to describe. Ask yourself what you would be feeling, and how the POV character would know that, since that character probably can’t read minds.

Last week’s blog post explained the importance of different characters sounding like different people, otherwise it sounds like sock-puppet dialogue. But apart from the mannerisms, ask why they speak like that? Create a short bio for each different major character who will have a speaking part. Practice speaking like that, out loud if you can. Even try recording it on your phone and playing it back.

This is How You Can Improve Your Dialogue.

It can help to practice speaking the dialogue aloud in various ways, experimenting with different voices, perhaps imitating different accents and mannerisms, until you find one that matches the personality you have bestowed upon the character speaking the line. But then, that character must continue to speak with that voice.

Which brings us to another way poorly written dialogue can be ineffective: inconsistency! Granted, sometimes, you want a character to be inconsistent, if that character has a role that requires the adaptability of a chameleon, such as a spy or an actor. Sometimes a character evolves during the course of the story, starting as timid and becoming more assertive as his/her emotions develop with the story. Sometimes you might have a character who rose from rough, poor beginnings to a very refined status, but under extreme stress, will still talk like the poor urchin he was before. The character of Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, (or as movie fans know it, My Fair Lady¸) is a great example.

So, how should you write your dialogue? I can’t tell you that. But your characters can! Try summoning them in your mind and having a friendly chat with them. Listen to what they say, and how they say it. Let them tell you how to write it.

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