Last time I discussed ways to make dialogue scenes easier to write. But dialogue is more than just what characters say.
Dialogue is action
Dialogue is a kind of action scene. Although the conversation is the main focus, the characters are more than just mouths.
Make the characters respond to each other
There should be give and take. A good scene will give a sense that something in the story has changed; in a dialogue scene you can make the conversation cause this change. And if so, the characters should respond to each other – listen, be surprised, perhaps refuse to accept. They could change each other’s minds or become more entrenched in their wrongheaded mission. Maybe strengthen their supportive relationships; deepen rifts and conflicts.
Some writers try to make the characters express everything in speech. For a radio play, that’s probably a necessary evil, but for a novel it’s not ideal.
It can also undermine the power of a character’s response. For instance, if a character has been upset, writers often try to put this in words – an understandable urge as they’ve got used to writing lines.
So I’ll see a lot of dialogue that goes: ‘how could you say that, I’m your best friend, I feel very hurt’ as they flail to convey the enormity. But not everyone is articulate and voluble when upset. Characters might react with a moment of silent shock, a gasp, an unguarded facial expression. Or they might stand up and put on their coat.
If you’re struggling to think of the right words in such a scene, consider whether you’re forcing the character to articulate when they would not.
Less drastically, you can build in other actions and reactions. I often see scenes where characters are sitting dummy-still while they’re talking. But most people get quite busy when they’re involved in a conversation. They might betray nervousness by kicking the table leg, or fiddle with their cuffs while they think. Even if the characters are on the phone – and therefore most of the communication is verbal – they are doing a lot more than simply speaking. They’ll be grimacing, smiling, biting their nails, straining to hear through a bad connection.
Once you start adding the non-verbal responses, you usually find you can refine the lines that are said out loud. If a character points across the loch at a monster, they might not need to say ‘look at that monster over there’ (thank you, Dave and Jamie, for the demonstration in the picture). If you edit the gestures so that they work with the spoken words, you make the point better. And you keep all the reader’s sensory channels open.
Don’t forget the setting
In the pressure to get the dialogue flowing, the writer sometimes forgets the environment. Then suddenly the character will stir their coffee. (Hooray for lattes, BTW: with just one prop you can slurp foam, add sugar and twiddle spoons.) But the environment is there all the time. If we don’t have continual low-key reminders, there can be a jolt when it returns to the scene. I often see long exchanges of chit-chat, then a sudden reference to the mahogany desk the character was sitting at – but the environment of the scene had long since disappeared from the prose.
A really vivid scene will keep the setting in the reader’s awareness. And that’s not just visuals, but sounds too – readers need all their senses fed.
A word of caution, though; it’s very easy to overdo. Details like this can get intrusive and irritating, so it’s better to use the setting to create natural pauses as the characters are talking, or when they need a beat to think. And don’t write ‘she thought’, try: ‘a police siren wailed in the street outside’, which will create the pause in the reader’s mind. It’s even better if you can make the environmental action echo an emotional point of the scene – for instance, a customer at the till who is arguing about his change.
These are ways to make a dialogue scene more fully rounded. And of course, there’s a whole other level under the words: the subtext. We’ll look at that next time.
For now, though, give me your thoughts: do you have to do separate passes to add these elements to dialogue scenes?
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life