Tuesday, February 10, 2015


How a person speaks is a reflection of who that person is. But speech is not just a means of display, like a peacock's plumage. We don't just speak at each other to prove how articulate or forceful or clever we are. We speak to each other.
Dialogue is what we get when we engage in that singularly human exercise of speaking to each other. It's dialogue that allows us to have the most complex interactions and relationships— and the most agonizing misunderstandings. Language is, of course, meant to communicate, and no matter how often we misinterpret each other, we keep on trying to connect through words.
But language provides more than connections. It also powers action. Anyone who has tried to find an address in a foreign city knows how essential conversation is to getting something done. So let's go beyond individual voice and speak of voices: arguing, agreeing, jawing, joking— making conversation that matters.
You might rent some videos with snappy dialogue, like the screwball comedies of the 30s, or David Mamet's films. Listen for the reaction pauses in those lightning-quick exchanges, and see if you can use for rhythm and balance in your own witty repartee. You'll probably also notice the repetition that links one line to the next like a drumbeat:
"So I say, baby, let the good times roll!"
"Right. Let 'em roll. I know how that works. You let those good times roll right over you, and tomorrow I'll find you plastered on the sidewalk."
Consider some purposes of conversations in your book (the purposes to the conversants, not just to your story), e.g., persuasion, intimidation, comfort, seduction, alliance-building, information exchange, time-passing, boasting....
Just keep focused on the results of this dialogue; what this conversation can do to these characters. Here are some effects that can come right from conversation, without any further action.
• A conspiracy to do something.
• A breakup.
• An alliance.
• A change in vote or position.
• A discovery of the key to a puzzle.
• A deepening mystery.
• A misinterpretation.
• A revelation of a secret.
• A change in attitude.
• A change in behavior.
• A flirtation.
• A deception.
• A surrender.

1)       Consider some purposes of conversations in your book (the purposes to the conversants, not just to your story), e.g., persuasion, intimidation, comfort, seduction, alliance-building, information exchange, time-passing, boasting....
Choose one purpose and craft a conversation in which the purpose is not fulfilled-- but which still advances the plot in some way.
2)      List ways your characters might interact in conversation, e.g., fight, deceive-doubt, interrogate-resist, sweettalk-resist, sweettalk­-succumb, comfort-accept, mutual flattery. Choose one and craft a conversation that shows the relationship changing in some way because of the interaction.
For example, John is trying to confide in his mother. He confesses his big secret-- that he got a tattoo on his buttocks a few months ago, and he thinks something went wrong.
"Mom, do you know anything about, well, hepatitis?"
"Hepatitis? I know it's a disease drug ad-- I mean, I know it's a disease. Why? Are you, umm, maybe doing a report for school?"
"What is it, sweetie? Come on, tell me. You know you can tell me anything. I might get mad, but you know it never lasts. I'm your mother. I love you no matter what, remember? And if you need help, well, I'll get it for you."
"I know. I know. Okay, I'll tell you. Just promise not to get mad, okay? I mean, you can get mad if you have to, but don't get too mad. I-- I don't know what to do!"
Mom can sense, probably from her son's tone of voice, that this is serious. So she stops herself from saying something inflammatory about drug addicts, and reminds him instead of her unwavering love. This keeps him from pulling away defensively, and makes him realize that he can trust her to help him out of the trouble his secrecy has gotten him into. Their relationship will be strengthened by this, because they are both being reminded of what that essential parent-child bond means.
3) Revise to make the change in relationship more clear. Dialogue, just like narrative, can cause things to happen in the story-- and SHOULD. :) A conversation, an overheard whisper, a ringing declaration, can make the plot go into a new direction. Striving for this can just about instantly vitalize your dialogue by making it more than just clever conversation. It will be... ACTION.
You can probably come up with other ways dialogue can cause change. But the important thing is--make the dialogue you have serve that purpose.
Look at the passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)
 One other thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue, I think, is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point. Otherwise you could just summarize it in narrative: -- She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.--  But if you're going to have dialogue, make the tension in it lead to the change, propel them towards change. "Give me that back! You can't just rifle through my Bible that way!"

Remember John Barnes's definition? He's a theater historian, so he's used to plays, where dialogue is all-important. ACTION is any irreversible event that changes the course of events course of events of the story.
So Jack speaks his confession into a recorder, then instead of hitting playback, he rewinds and records over it: No go. That's not action because it's reversible.
But if Sally is hiding under the bed. and hears him dictating, he can rewind all he likes, but she still knows the truth, and will now be able to act on it. That's irreversible dialogue. Anything spoken aloud and heard by someone else is irreversible. But that does mean anything he says just to himself doesn't count. Introspection is well and good, but he can always take it back. His thoughts have to be heard to be irreversible. He can speak them aloud, or act on them… only then does a thought become irreversible.
 Harder still is making sure that dialogue has an effect, that it changes something not just in the plot, but in the relationship. How can you accomplish that? First, start by deciding that you're not going to have long stretches of dialogue that just displays how funny this guy is, or shows how well they get along, or passes on to the reader some necessary information. All that is fine, but think how the conversation will crackle when the reader realizes that this moment of conversation is going to change something.
  What sort of change can a conversation bring?
Especially in a comedy, making information exchange a conversation of
conflict can provide a bit of humor. Here's an example from a historical novel: 
"Jane, do let me put my bonnet up. I have been out all day looking for
your bir–" Lucy stopped and clapped her hand over her wayward mouth.
 "My bir– my birthday gift? Oh, Aunt Lucy! What? What did you get me?"
 "Your birthday isn't for three days."
 "Oh, tell me now! Tell me!" Jane put her little hands to her heart. "I
promise to be good!"

How long does Lucy hold out before she tells what the gift is? Now there's bound to be an information exchange, but it isn't just a quick spill– there's conflict, and character revelation, and lots of whining before she imparts the important fact.
 What's important is that the story changes somehow because one character has passed on some information to the other. So make something happen as a result of this exchange. The niece insists on going to the stable to see the birthday horse, and there she meets the young Mr. Ferguson, nephew of the best friend of Lucy's late husband. Eventually this "seed" conversation can lead to a change in their relationship, where the younger lady becomes more adventurous than her aunt.
Using that same story progression, here are some common events that happen because of the action and interaction in dialogue.

Discovery is another form of information exchange, but instead of just passing on what one already knows, it results in a revelation of something neither speaker knew. Talking together helps them put together pieces of a puzzle.  
"The stablemaster writes to say Jane didn't attend her riding lesson today," Lucy said, staring at the note as trepidation filled her.
 Captain Ferguson frowned. "You know, that must have been your Jane I saw in my nephew's curricle! I thought it looked like her, but I assumed you had her well-chaperoned."
"They are courting!"
Discovery requires that both contribute some essential fact, and the sum is a new piece of information. The conversation is active because, without this particular sharing of facts, the truth would never come out. This use of dialogue is especially good when you want both to participate in the discovery of some event or clue. It gives them a way to cooperate, to produce something together, and in a romance can subtly show how well
they're suited.

A conversation can also result in an alliance of interests. It's most fun if the conversation leads them to realize they need to work together, especially if that's a frightening prospect.
 "I don't care what you say, Captain Ferguson." Lucy looked implacably at him. "My sister sent Jane to me so that her daughter can marry well. And I regret to say that a penniless young lieutenant isn't going to suit."
 "You think I want my nephew shackling himself to some twittery little snob?"
 "My niece is not–" Lucy stopped and listened to the echo of his words.  Then, slowly, she said, "You don't want this marriage either?"

It's best that they start out somewhat at odds, so the conversation brings them to alliance. Thus, in the course of the dialogue scene, they move from adversaries to reluctant allies.

Sometimes when two people realize they have a common interest, they end up conspiring together. This involves agreeing tacitly or openly to work together more or less in secret. So the concerned aunt and uncle above might agree to work to stop the wedding. They're creating a shared goal and a plan to achieve it. Take the conversation further if you can. A plan requires action, so as they're arguing and negotiating the steps involved in stopping the wedding, you'll be showing them learning to work together– and where they're in conflict.  
"I remember when I was nineteen," Captain Ferguson observed, as if it was a century ago and not just a decade. "I would never have let a relative tell me whom I could court."
 Lucy sighed. "Jane is just that way. She thrives on opposition. A very dear girl, but..." She glanced over and could see that Captain Ferguson was struggling manfully not to say that this must be a family trait. She said, "They are counting on us to object, aren't they? So why don't we ... surprise them?"
 "You mean, pretend that we are in favor of the match?" Captain Ferguson frowned in thought. "Well, I can't think of anything more likely to make Joseph think twice, than me telling him that Jane is a perfect wife."
 Lucy said decisively, "Let's then. Let's take every opportunity to throw them together."
 "Do you attend the Haversham musicale tomorrow night? We can insist they sit together. With both of us nearby, of course, so as not to excite
their suspicions."
Conspiracies lead to joint action. Use this conversation to set up regular meetings between them, for example, where they have to act together to further their shared goal. Secrecy only adds to the fun of their meetings.

Maybe your characters are getting along way too well, especially if they're conspiring. Well, bring on a conversation that leads to greater conflict. But don't make it trivial. Oh, the surface-level topic might be trivial, but see if you can make their
responses reflect some internal conflicts. 
Lucy declared, "Everyone in my family gets married at St. George's."
 "Since we plan that they won't actually get wedded, what difference does it make? It will be easier to set the wedding outside London– easier to cancel it, that is, with the least fanfare."
 "Jane will think I disapprove if I set the ceremony anywhere but St. George's."
 He regarded her with narrowed eyes. "Your wedding was in St. George's, I seem to recall." He added, "It rained. All day."
 "This is England, Captain Ferguson," she said coldly. "It frequently rains here, and not just outside of St. George's. If you hadn't left in the middle of the ceremony, you would have seen that we made a game of it, leaving the church under our umbrellas."
 "A game. Yes. I've observed that you considered marriage itself a game, Mrs. Endicott."
 She gasped, but he was going on as if he cared not that he had just impugned her virtue. "No St. George's. I will not hear of it. I will not have my nephew even consider marrying in the place where you married my poor dead fool of a best friend!"

Again, aim for some change in their relationship. They start out thinking they can clear this little problem up, but find that actually, the more they talk, the more at odds they are– and it will be especially interesting if it reveals why they are really in conflict.

Conflict is the fuel that powers the plot, but you can't have them always fighting, or the reader will start to suspect these two have no reason to ally. If they have been at odds, then a conversation can lead to some kind of truce, reluctant or not. Again, there must be change from the state in the beginning of the conversation to another state at
the end.
 "Gretna Green?" Lucy whispered. "They've eloped?"
 "Damnation. They've got a two-hour head start on me."
 Lucy grabbed up her bonnet. "I'm going too."
 "Nonsense," he said. He couldn't imagine even a few hours alone with Lucy. They would do nothing but argue, and every angry word would put new scars in his heart.
 "Let me go along," she said. "It might spare Jane's reputation if I'm there to bring her home."
 He stood irresolute, his hand on the door. Finally he muttered, "We will do them no good if we show up fighting like Napoleon's artillery against Wellington's cavalry."
 She smiled suddenly, sadly. "I promise to be civil to you. If you promise to be civil back."
 "Oh, all right."
 "Let's take your phaeton. It will be faster."
 A treaty should lead to some shared decision– taking his phaeton, for example– to show that their cooperation is not just talk.

Remember that the act of lying is, in itself, irreversible. That is, once it's done, it's very hard to take back, and the resulting mess of admitting to the lie or being caught in it can be extreme. So if one character is deceiving the other, see if you can make him lie directly in conversation.
 Speaking it aloud makes him commit more to the deception because he cannot take it back now. But make sure the deception has an effect on the plot. For example, she relies on what he has told her to make a decision or take an action, or, alternatively, she recognizes it as a lie, and his deception destroys her trust in him. Or she challenges him and forces him to tell her the truth. 
"You never told me about when John died." She looked grimly at the road ahead. "I should know. I am his widow."
 Captain Ferguson's fists closed more tightly on the reins. "You saw the commendation. He died a hero."
 "Yes. That's what the commendation said. That he died saving someone. But you were there. Whom did he save?"
 He recalled John protecting his Portuguese mistress with his body as the grenade exploded nearby. "He saved me."
 "That is very gallant, Captain. Untrue, but gallant." Lucy turned her merciless gaze on him. "Tell me why you are lying."

 Just keep in mind that a lie will almost always be revealed as a lie, sooner or later. As President Nixon said (and boy, did he know!), it's not the crime but the cover-up that gets you in trouble. The very fact that one character lied to the other, even with the best of motives, should create conflict – within the liar while it's still secret, and within the relationship when it's revealed. The revelation of the lie will manifest issues with trust and honor that might have been buried for years. So if there's a lie, have it revealed early enough that there is time for them to work through its consequences.

You can't take back telling the truth either. So a conversation where a long-hidden truth is revealed will lead to real change. Just remember to set this up earlier, whether it involves alluding to a secret or posing a question, such as why Captain Ferguson stalked out of his best friend's wedding. 
They gazed at the sign welcoming them to Gretna Green, Scotland's most famous site. "So Jane and Charlie now hate each other and refuse to speak, much less marry."
 Lucy sighed. "I almost started believing in love at first sight again, imagining them wed. But–"
 "But now, you are made a cynic all over again." He smiled down at her. "And we still have that damnable church reserved." Suddenly he took her in his arms. "What do you say, Mrs. Endicott? Shall we make use of the reservation ourselves?"
 Lucy opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she pressed her cheek against his chest and whispered, "A wedding? You? And I?"
 "I haven't been, I suppose, entirely honest with you."
 "I know about John's mistress," she said.
 "I don't mean that. I mean– oh, hang it all, Lucy. I love you. I've loved you all along. I walked out of St. George's that day because I couldn't bear to see you marrying anyone else, especially my best friend."
 "Oh." She took a deep breath as she felt his heartbeat beneath her cheek. "You know, I don't truly like St. George's Church."
 "You don't?"
 "It always rains there."
 "Yes, I've noticed that."
 "Look." Lucy pulled away long enough to gesture at the sky. "The sun is shining now. And I hear they know how to give weddings here in Gretna –"

The truth can't be taken back. It's possible for the listener to misinterpret, but even then, the conversation should always have some effect, should change the characters and their actions. The moment one or both speaks openly about a secret (love, or the trauma in the past, or the conflict between them)– well, that's the truth the reader's been waiting for. Take your time with this conversation. Think of the revelation as the irrevocable and dangerous telling of a secret truth, with potentially dire consequences. And leave a little time to show the actually wonderful consequences awaiting the character brave enough to tell the truth.
 Dialogue takes up a lot of space in a book, and is particularly appealing to readers, as it reveals character in so many ways. So don't waste the space. Look at dialogue passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)
 One final thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point. Without conflict in the conversation, you might just as well summarize it in narrative: She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.
 If you're going to have dialogue between two characters, make the tension in it lead to the change, or propel them towards change.


The people we talk to the most are the ones we have the most trouble understanding, right? That's because we tend to hear all sorts of echoes from the past. We also have more than one purpose in talking to a loved one— we might want information and reassurance. We might even want to fight a little.
These are some ways people interact in conversation:
fight-flight                  fight-fight
deceive-doubt              deceive-believe
interrogate-resist         interrogate-answer
sweettalk-resist           sweettalk-succumb
comfort-accept            comfort-reject
mutual flattery                                    mutual insult
A married couple, for example, has had this conversation a dozen times before. They even finish each other's sentences.
"Colbert's on."
"Want to stay up and watch it?"
"Yeah, sure. Just flip off the light--"
"So you can rest your eyes. I know, I know. I just want to hear the Top Ten list."
Try to establish the familiarity then throw some wrench into it--change it so it's no Ionger a rote conversation but actually becomes an interaction fraught with potential action:
"So who's Colbert interviewing tonight?"
"Let's see what it says in the TV Guide. Hmm. That new action star, Tim Gordon--"
"Tim Gordon? You know, I went on a blind date with him once. My brush with fame, I guess. He wanted to go out again, but I turned him down because you and I had gotten back together."
"You never told me that."
"It didn't matter, did it, when he was a nobody. I never knew he'd end up being a star."
"So what you're saying is-- you wish you'd gone with him that night instead of me?"
Now it's not so familiar, is it? You can have one overreact because of something out of their shared past-- that will hint at an unresolved conflict.
Take pains to avoid the clich├ęd exchange of insults. That gets old fast, and seldom results in either the true deepening or the true resolving of conflicts. Instead, make this conversation cause some change in the relationship.
For example, one speaker can finally break an old pattern by responding to an old provocation in a new way-- asking a question, or walking out, or sympathizing. Think CHANGE.

Choose a scene from your story that involves two people in some conflict with each other.
1)      Think of this relationship at this point in the story. How will their conversation reflect their current feelings about each other, and their reasons for being together?
2)      Is this encounter cooperative or confrontational? Are they working together or against each other? How can you show their reluctant alliance, or their hostility, or their friendly competition in their dialogue?
3)      Are both equally open and forthcoming, or is one keeping secrets? If there's a secret being kept, can you indicate that in the dialogue? No, don't let the other character in on it, but can you have the secretive one start to say something, then abruptly change the subject, indicating to the reader that there's something hidden there?
4)      What emotion or attitude is each character trying to convey? Trying to hide? Is that coming out in their speech?
5)      How well do they know each other? How does this affect their verbal interaction? If they know each other well, what can you do to make this an unique conversation? If they don't know each other, do you show in their dialogue openness or distrust or wariness or excitement or something that means this encounter has great meaning?
6)      Do you show the relationship changing at least a little because of this encounter? At the end, for example, does she feel trusting enough now to confide in him? Or maybe he's figured out she must be the thief because she's spoken so familiarly of the layout of the museum? Does the way they talk shift because of this change in the relationship?


Adrian said...

Yay! Fresh Edittorrent content! We've missed you.

I find dialogue particularly difficult to write, so I'm going to study this post in depth.

Anonymous said...

I've missed this blog so much! This post has been helpful on 80 different levels.