Mastering Dialogue: Another 5 Techniques to Help You Shine
Dialogues are a very stimulating and complex part of the work for me. Some time ago I wrote Part 1 of this post about Dialogue where I went through five techniques I use. Here are five more.
I wish I really knew how to write only in dialogues like Hemingway used to do. In my youth, I wrote a couple of short stories just like that — only with dialogues. I don’t think they were very good stories, but it was interesting to try. I wrote a few theater plays and many movie and TV scripts — maybe that’s the closest I got to it. Anyway, in this Part 2, I’d like to go through a few more techniques I learned or picked up or developed myself. See if it’s useful for you. I’ll continue the list from Part 1.
6. Tone — When I write dialogues I like to focus on the music, on the rhythm, so descriptions are not the priority — descriptions will typically decrease the speed of the dialogue and that has a particular effect on the story. This said, it becomes tricky to always convey the right tone to what’s being said. Emojis are very good for this, and that’s why we use them so much online (calm down, bear with me). For instance: That was interesting. The tone of the sentence very much depends on the context. If you add emojis, you can do what you want. For instance: That was interesting ;) or: That was interesting :( You can almost visualize the scene just by feeling the tone. I tried using emojis in fiction in the past, but it was messy and distracting. I don’t do it anymore. Still: context will give you tone most of the time, and other times you can use other tools. In spite of my editors’ complaints, I use another formatting at my disposal. Here’s a sample from my last novel LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING:
She’d put on the seatbelt just a moment before. Because her mother had screamed, ‘PUT THE SEATBELT ON! RIGHT NOW!’ Because she had cried instead of putting it on immediately. But this time she had obeyed. She had focused her attention and pulled the belt, but it got stuck and she whined. ‘Mommy!’ ‘Slowly! Pull it slowly!’
See how I use the Caps? Caps means a different tone than a simple ‘!’. Or two simple ‘!!’. The context gives you part of the tone. The length of the sentences and the rhythm will also help. Read Part 1 to see how to set the rhythm. But formatting also helps — use Caps, use punctuation, use what you can find.
7. Habits and Personality Traits — Dialogues are great to develop characters. It’s not easy to get characters, especially characters that are of the same age and group, to speak in different factions. Still, it’s important to try. It becomes boring if readers feel everybody is speaking the same way. I, for one, do my best to do both things at the same time: both develop characters and differentiate them. One of the ways I do it is by creating little habits in speech for this or that character. For instance: a word they use a lot, or an expression they use, or a quirk of some kind. You can invent a character that starts all his sentences by ‘Listen.’ Or someone who uses ‘Okay’, like Joe Pesci’s character in LETHAL WEAPON — ‘Okay, okay, okay…’.
8. Accents — Be careful with accents. They can be used to differentiate characters, that’s for sure, but they can be annoying and distracting. I use them all the time, I try to phonetically reflect the way a character talks because of an accent, but I always do it with supporting characters and not very much. Otherwise, it is both cumbersome and irritating. I also make sure I don’t overdo it: I just pick a few words to alter, no more. Here is how I did it with a French captain who would, however, never turn out again in the book:
The captain seemed relieved to see the American. He saluted back, wiped the sweat and dirt from his neck and spoke with an unmistakable French accent.
‘Gangs. They arre trrying to brreach in multiple points. Twenty or thirty attackers at least. RPG’s, mortars, heavy fire. This is big. We arre all engaged. At least two of my guys arre down. You’re the reinforcements? What happened?’
‘Suicide bomb at the HQ. My troopers are right behind me.’
‘Multiple. Where do you need us?’
‘Right flank. Therre is another attack a hundred meters to the West and they arre coming back this way as well. We need to hold them here. Go to the right. Therre arre only a couple of my men up there.’
‘We got it!’
9. Plotpoints and Beats — What’s essential in dialogues, in my view, is that they serve the story. Just read a sentence by Stephen King: «In many cases, when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring’, the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.» In dialogues, the same thing happens: I read many authors, even some as experienced and high quality as Brandon Sanderson, who go on and on with dialogues way beyond the point they have been useful for the story. Way beyond the point when the ball stopped rolling.
You must control your dialogues: they must have plotpoints and beats. What’s that? Plotpoints are changes in the direction of the story — readers will not feel the story is moving unless you have plotpoints. And beats are things happening, nuggets of action, an action-reaction combo. Let me show you — here’s an example from LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING I already used in Part 1:
After taking a few bites of some really good beef, I turned to her again. ‘Look, what I need to know is that your mind is in this thing. Is it?’
She looked at me. ‘Yes. It is.’
‘How about the rest of you?’
She almost laughed. ‘You tell me. You took a good look.’
I clenched my teeth, irritated.
She stopped smiling. ‘I can handle it. I’ve been working out. A bit too much, actually.’
She hadn’t, I could tell.
‘I’ll be alright.’
I stopped eating and looked deep into her eyes. ‘I need you to have my back, Drexler. Can you handle it?’
She stopped eating too and looked back deep into my eyes. ‘I’ll have your back, King.’ And she was serious. ‘Thank you,’ she added. That was good enough for me. I wiped my mouth and prepared to leave. ‘Good,’ I said, getting up. ‘Let’s grab some bananas, we need to go.’
So in this dialogue, the reader needs to know a few things: that Paige Drexler will be serious about the mission, that she is capable, that she is grateful for the opportunity and that she will be loyal to Berger, and finally that Berger will accept her as his number two. So let’s make it short and sweet: 4 beats, 1 plotpoint. Beat 1: Is your mind on this thing- Yes, it is; Beat 2: How about the rest of you — I can handle it. Beat 3: I need you to have my back — I’ll have your back, King. Beat 4: Thank you — That was good enough for me. Plotpoint: ‘Good,’ I said, getting up. ‘Let’s grab some bananas, we need to go.’ And that’s it: everything that needed to be done is done — let the ball rolling.
10. Subtext — Finally, subtext. I already spoke about it here. People talking to each other is a chaotic storm of implicit meanings. The more you are able to convey what’s implicit, the more interesting is the dialogue. Learn to be subtle by showing, not telling. When we read Hemingway’s dialogues we can guess the action, we can imagine the reactions. The essential is in the words being said. Being exchanged. And they’re more important because of the subtext they carry rather than the words themselves. Controlling the subtext in dialogues, my friends, is the mark of a master. Every time I happen to succeed at it I feel the luckiest guy alive. So go for it!
And that’s all I have to say at this point about dialogues. I hope it was useful to you.