I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately – when it works and when it doesn’t. What is it about reading great dialogue that takes you right into the heart of a character? Margaret Bechard gave a fabulous lecture on dialogue during my first Vermont College residency in July of 2008, and I thought I'd share what I learned from her and others on this subject.
1. Dialogue needs to be about emotion and needs to reveal character. Subtlety is important.
2. Dialogue in great writing is not like real people talking. Lots of what real people say is boring. You don’t want your work to be boring.
3. Gesture, rhythm, poetic intonation – these are all part of great dialogue.
4. Dialogue provides white space on the page, and so it catches the reader’s attention and tends to move the story at a faster pace.
5. Dialogue tags are best avoided. People don’t hiss or growl their words. Even avoid “said” if it can be made obvious who is talking through how they talk.
6. The best dialogue doesn’t say anything right out, but hints at emotion, action, desire. Most people when they feel strong emotions say exactly what they don’t mean, and this leads to conflict.
7. The less said, the better. Monologues are dull.
8. Characters who finish one another’s sentences or who react in unexpected ways are more interesting than those who indulge in “straight talk.”
9. Try not to have characters address one another: “But, Dad, I don’t want to!” “Now, John, you have to.” “No, I don’t, Dad.” You get the idea.
10. One of the best examples of fine dialogue is found in the short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway.
11. Beats – pauses, gestures – in dialogue should be followed by something really important. Reversals are good to put after beats. For example: “You do realize that we’ve missed the train?” He looked up at her. “Or was that what you hoped?”
12. Try this exercise: put two characters in a room. Put an unopened package between them. Only one of them knows what’s in the package, and it’s something dangerous/special/frightening. Have them carry on a conversation without any tags at all, and without any reference to the box or its contents.
If you have any thoughts on dialogue, ideas, great examples, please share. Thanks!