Everyone loves to eavesdrop.
Oh, not you?
Admit it, a juicy bit of conversation allows us to get inside someone else’s life--or at least let us think we do.
Conversation is powerful, and it’s the foundation of popular media and social. Without conversation we wouldn’t have daytime TV, reality TV, or Facebook.
Strong dialogue harnesses the power of conversation. It conveys the messages we want to spread. So we can achieve our dreams.
Improve your dialogue and people will pay attention.
Strong dialogue allows you to tell stories in a way that no other technique can. Through good dialogue you can:
Provide relevant backstory in an interesting, unobtrusive way
Show a character’s character
Punctuate a poin
Break up long narrative
Great fiction requires great dialogue, but dialogue not just for fiction. Dialogue is critical for many written forms--essay, memoir, interviews, and creative non-fiction. Speeches are better with a good quote, which is nothing more than a lonely piece of dialogue. No matter what you’re writing, masterful dialogue will make it stronger.
I’ve developed a simple pneumonic to help craft strong, interesting dialogue. The kind that gets people to pay attention.
Advance the story
Insert action and Infuse motion
Delete extra words
S: Study conversation.
Indulge in intentional eavesdropping. Notice the conversations around you. When are they one-sided? When are people having two different conversations? Listen to the ways people talk over one another and change the subject. Capture the most ridiculous lines in a very special place so you can lift them later to insert in a piece of writing.
Strive for expert level eavesdropper status. Listen to what is said, of course, but also observe body language. You’ll need it to describe the action of the conversation.
A: Advance story.
Half the fun of eavesdropping is making up the backstory. When we have a history with the person we’re talking to, we don’t have to fill them in on every detail. Which is why eavedroppers can read so many juicy details in between the spoken lines.
Good dialogue leaves things unsaid. It provides mystery. It leaves the relationship history to the imagination until the reader needs to learn it. We never want our characters to sound like a bad soap-opera.
“Oh, Gerald! How can you ask me to run away with you to your family’s Venetian palace when you know my brother is lying in a hospital bed because he gave me his liver but now he has amnesia?”
(PS - Amnesia is rarely a good solution to whatever corner you’ve written yourself into.)
Your dialogue doesn’t need to provide a biography. It only needs to advance the story:
“Don’t be silly. Pass me the revolver.”
Real conversations can also be boring, filled with mundane details of ordinary life.
Entertaining dialogue includes only the interesting bits.
It sticks to the information the reader needs to know at this particular moment in the story. Dialogue is also a great way to reveal character traits, like how someone changes the subject when a certain topic comes up.
I: Insert action and infuse emotion
Action and emotion often go hand in hand in dialogue. Action speaks louder than words, after all. People have agendas and emotional baggage that they don’t know how to put into words.
What can you tell the reader by making a character shift in his chair, raise his eyebrows, or turn his head to look out the window?
D: Delete any and all extra words
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” ~Blaise Pascal
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” ~William Shakespeare
Unless you are trying to tell us a character talks too much, cut every word you can in dialogue. Let the reader consume the lines quickly. Intersperse them with the action of the character saying them. Kill every non-essential word.
This economy of words goes for dialogue tags too. Keep them simple. At most, he said/she said will do. I prefer to forego tags altogether when I can. So long as the reader knows who’s in the room, you can usually get away with no tags. Use action to fill in any context needed for clarity.
Bringing it all together
Using SAID, writing and editing dialogue becomes a lot easier. Get away from bloated dialogue like this:
“Would you like some pancakes for breakfast,” he said cheerfully.
“No, thank you,” she said with a sigh. “I’m trying to lose a couple of pounds before the party next weekend so I can fit into my red dress.”
“I wish you wouldn’t worry so much about your weight,” he said. “You always look great to me.”
Who talks like this? Not any couples I know. This exchange is boring and soulless. There’s no action. I know there’s a party next weekend, and she’s worried about her weight, but there’s no reason to care.
Here’s a tighter, livened up version:
Randy pulled out the skillet. “Pancakes?”
Every Sunday, without fail, this is how he took care of her.
“No, thanks. That party is next weekend.”
He shook his head. “Why are you obsessed with Beth?”
Whoa, this just got interesting! No one has to tell us Randy is a great guy, we get to see it through his actions. But what is up with Beth? We need to know.
Ready to make your dialogue stronger so people will pay attention? I can help.