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Techniques for sparking up your dialogue. Maintaining tension.
This article appeared in the June/July, Vol. 11, Num. 3 Issue of Outreacher, a newsletter by and for members of Outreach International Romance Writers.
Sparking Up Your Dialogue
By T.L. Gray
Dialogue can make the difference between a boring scene and one that jumps off the page. Maintaining tension throughout the book is key. Coherence and logic are not the goals of dialogue. The emotional effect on the reader is what you’re striving for. If the reader’s emotions aren’t involved, he or she will lose interest in the book and the characters quickly. One way of maintaining tension is to make sure your dialogue is confrontational or adversarial in nature.
Edginess is catching. Using a strong word (e.g. hated) about an object is often received as really being about a person. A character doing something without realizing it increases the reader’s tension.
Example: Wife: “Is something wrong?”
Husband: “Why would you think that?”
Wife: “You just ordered peas. You hate peas.”
Husband: “Did I?”
Now the reader’s interest is piqued because he/she knows the husband was so distracted by something, that he ordered a dish that he would normally never order.
Repetition of a statement can also come across as confrontational, raising the level of tension in a scene.
Example: “You came back. I knew you’d come back.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“But you did.”
“I got a call from Mick.”
Mick’s call was important enough to force the resistant character into returning.
Opposition between characters makes for riveting drama. Cool vs. heated. Naïve vs. cynical. Trusting vs. suspicious.
Example: “You don’t have to shout!”
“I’m not the one shouting. You are.”
Drama is confrontational. Think TV shows like Family Law and The Practice.
Delaying substantive responses will also affect the emotion of the reader. Just remember, the unanswered question/answer must be important.
Example: “You have exactly two minutes to plead your case.”
“What I have to say will take more than two minutes. There are extenuating circumstances.”
“Perhaps I should start at the beginning.”
Stress tends make people reveal more. They blurt things out. In anger, they say things that would normally remain suppressed.
Example: “I wouldn’t have to lock my jewels up if your brother didn’t have such sticky fingers!”
Sometimes they don’t say enough, but the reader instinctively knows there’s more to the story.
Example: “Tell me about your father.”
“Nothing to tell.”
“Is your relationship with him good?”
“He’s not around much.”
Then again, sometimes they say too much.
Example: “I was not looking at his butt, I was admiring the curtains. Who knew he was going to take his pants off right in front of the bedroom window.”
Eventually, stress and tension must be relieved, giving both the reader and the characters time to regroup and relax before the next wave of tension hits.
Interruptions are a valuable means of giving dialogue pace and making it seem real. A character’s emotions can be expressed in dialogue by their reactions to something other than the current conflict.
Dale and Jean are walking down the street, arguing on a subject where it seems they will never agree. Jean pauses to tie her shoe. Suddenly, ahead of them, a pedestrian is struck by a hit and run car. They forget their argument and rush to help the injured person.
Reconciliation through oblique dialogue is one way to achieve this, using instances where the differences between the characters don’t matter.
“He was probably drunk.”
“I doubt it. This rain makes the streets slick. I’m just glad her injuries were minor.”
“Me too. If we hadn’t stopped so you could tie your shoe, it could have been us.”
Dale and Jean don’t agree on why the motorist hit the victim, but they can put this difference aside to agree on the possible outcome.
Speech markers in dialogue can help omit unnecessary, boring “he said/she said” tags. For example, Jay Gatsby used the phrase “old sport” when addressing others. This is referred to as a speech signature, or tag. We don’t have to be told who is speaking because Gatsby’s habit of addressing people this way was established early on. Other types of markers include vocabulary, such as professional jargon. Throw away words/phrases. Tight or loose wording. Run on sentences. Sarcasm. Cynicism. Poor grammar. Omitted words. Inappropriate modifiers. It may take Lula Mae a whole paragraph to answer a simple question, whereas David may explain in terms associated with his profession, while another, less learned person, may tend to use poor grammar.
You can also substitute an action for “he said” and achieve the same effect. Example: Tyler smashed his fist against the desk. “I don’t give a damn what he said! I want those papers filed today.”
Business in dialogue provides a visual for the reader. By business, I mean an action. The action should be both characteristic and appropriate for the circumstances.
Example: Joan pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders. “It’s a bit chillier out here than I realized.”
If Joan were examining her fingernails while observing the weather, the action would not relate to the circumstance. However, the action would be appropriate if accompanied by a statement indicating Joan was bored.
Exposition is used to convey a character’s occupation. You can pass the information on by converting the information into a question, or conveying it in a way that seams a natural part of the conversation.
Example: “He doesn’t look like a dentist does he?”
This technique also works well for descriptions of places, how a person dresses, etc.
Example: “This room is claustrophobic. If I have to stay in here another minute, I’ll scream.”
A character’s thoughts are dialogue between him/her and the reader. However, thoughts should do one or all of three things—characterize the speaker or others, move the story along, and add to the emotional experience of the reader.
Example: “We took vows. Till death do us part, remember?”
That suits me just fine. “Yes, I remember.”
“The child will have to be placed in a foster home.”
Not if I can help it. “Is that really necessary?”
Silent Dialogue can replace a character’s need to speak.
Example: (During a phone conversation)
“The postcard arrived today. From Scotland. I called the Georgia State Penitentiary, the warden assured me Jack is still serving time.”
He said nothing, but she could hear the sound of pen and paper. At least he was taking notes.
These are just a few ways of sparking up your dialogue. Take a section of dialogue from a scene and see how many of these elements you can incorporate. Remember, opposition between characters is key. You’ll be amazed at the result.