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Creating Effective Dialogue Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

 

Dialogue seems difficult for many fiction writers.  To be effective in fiction, dialogue must serve more than one purpose.  Characterization, plot advancement, revelation of emotional states, advancing imagery, providing movement to story, marking a timeline and introducing conflicts to be solved are just a few objectives.  Take a simple example of a snippet of conversation that occurs in real life.

"Would you like some sushi?"

"Yes."

This is unacceptable in good fiction.  It is flat, useless writing.  If, indeed, the purpose for the story is to indicate the acceptance of sushi, a more effective way of making the point might be narrative:  She took the sushi.

But there is also opportunity here, depending, of course, on context, what has come before, and what will come in the story and the prose.

"Would you like some sushi?  I prepared it myself."

"My Grandfather was tortured on Okinawa."

A lot is now happening.  The giver has positive emotions and is offering a special gift, which would indicate a liking for the recipient.  The recipient has a dislike for the Japanese, because a relative was tortured (even killed, maybe) during the Second World War.  Time is indicated in that two generations have passed.  The recipient seems unreasonable in the response.  And the response is not logical, given that sushi is a food, and not a product of, or related to, participants in World War II.

This is taking advantage, primarily, of characterization, and indicating emotional valences in the scene.  It locks in a time period.  But there is another aspect of dialog that is useful and relates to drama.  It is the most often ignored opportunity, and the most often needed for story momentum.  It is conflict.

In real conversations, conflict is avoided as the easiest way to get through life.  But in creating a fictional reality, readers need conflict for interest and for movement and knowledge that the conflict action and resolution will deliver.  For example:

Real conversation.

"Look.  You'll hit the ball to the green if you line up more to the left and bring the club back farther."

"Good idea.  I'll give it a try."

But in fiction, the response has to be different.  It has to have purpose to be dialogue rather than conversation.  So the answer might be:

"Bring the club back farther."

"I've tried that.  It never works."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Your back-swing isn't so great."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Who the hell are you to be giving me advice?"

If this type of dialogue does not work for the story, then almost always the purpose for the attempted dialogue segment is better expressed in narrative, or even internalized in character thought.  The point being that poorly conceived and written dialogue on the page is deadly for story and style.  And if an author is simply describing dialogue from an imagined or real event, the advantages of created dialogue with a purpose in a fictional story will be lost, and the story will not reach its potential.

So much of fiction today is memoir based in conceptualization – a first person narrator telling what happened to them is common – that it is replacing creative fiction that is created for the enjoyment of the reader, rather than the pleasure of the author, and that grows from the techniques of structure, imagination and meaning.  The unhappy result is that great dialogue seems to be a diminishing accomplishment among authors.

Here are examples of dialogue from classic literary novels that multitask purposes in dialogue in the story's best interest, are enjoyable, and are alive.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

"Now he is here," I exclaimed.  "For Heaven's sake, hurry down!  You'll not meet him on the front stairs.  Do be quick; and stay among the trees till he is fairly in."

"I must go, Cathy," said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion's arms.  "But, if I live, I'll see you again before you are asleep.  I won't stray five yards from your window."

"You must not go," she answered, holding him as firmly as her strength allowed.  "You shall not, I tell you."

"For one hour," he pleaded earnestly.

"Not for one minute," she replied.

"I must–Linton will be up immediately," persisted the intruder.

Wow.  Note how the use of reversals, surprises, and opposition are employed.  And the insertion of will-it-happen? when he says, "But, if I live, I'll see you . . ."  And the conflict and action.  A great on the page performance.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"But who did he tell it to?  You and me?"

"And Porfiry."

"What does it matter?"

"And, by the way, do you have any influence over them, his mother and sister?  Tell them to be more careful with him today . . ."

"They'll get on all right!" Razumikhin answered reluctantly.

"Why is he so set against this Luzhin?  A man with money and she doesn't dislike him . . . and they haven't got a penny, I suppose?"

"But what business is it of yours?" Razumikhin cried with annoyance.

Again, reversal, conflict, opposition, emotions emoting, and information flowing by.  Dialog can do so much when written well, the information and ideas to be expressed well chosen, and the use appropiate for the time and happenings in the story.  There is also application of a general useful rule:  Try not to answer questions, especially with definitive answers.  "Do you like it?" followed by "I like it," does not work well.

 

It may be easy to see the worth of the examples, but difficult to know how to apply the ideas to your own writing.  When reading fiction for pleasure, look for flat, uninteresting dialogue that stops story momentum and breaks that unique fictional dream that envelops the reader.  Then you might imagine how, using the information already presented, you might create more dynamic dialogue that works.

Great dialogue is rarely inherent in writers and requires practice and attention throughout a career.  Without exception, for great literary stories, effective dialog, well written and tastefully used, is essential.

WHC

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9 Responses to “Creating Effective Dialogue”

  1. Nero Says:

    Can you tell me if the ebook biz of http://www.darkcastle.com is for real? It looks like they're still developing the site, but the premise looks interesting. Anyway, has anyone here heard of them; and, are they legit? Thanks.

  2. William Coles Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I've not heard of Darkcastle.com. I read the site and their proposal. The idea is clearly presented. I was surprised at the author cost, however, which seems to be author unfriendly. I would feel better if the site would accept free submissions, vet for quality, and do their online publishing, making their profit from sales and returning a fair percentage to the author. As it is set up now, it is an initial fee for service plus a commission arrangement, reminiscent of self-publishing and publish-on-demand companies, that seems grounded in profit, rather than altruism. It remains to be seen if authors will pay this much to be online with a yet to be established organization when there are many other ways to post and market online. All fascinating stuff as the structure of how writers will be read and appreciated (and make a living) in the future continues to change daily, always with a surprise embedded. WHC

  3. Story in Literary Fiction « Annette Dunlea Literary Blog Says:

    […] New SILF Blog post. “Writing Effective Dialogue.” […]

  4. Shro Says:

    Fyodor Dostoevski, my friend, not Theodore.

  5. William Coles Says:

    Corrected. And many thanks.

  6. Assignment 6: Create a character-based fictional scene | Literary Fiction Workshop Says:

    […] Dialogue […]

  7. Robert Says:

    Just one question. I've gotten into the habit of doing the following:

    "By the way," I said, turning to face him, "you're fired!"
    Now, the second part of dialogue was a continuation. Should I have put You're or left it as you're?
    Might have been bad example, but when I'm writing a sentence and divide it like that, should I continue with a capital or small letter?

  8. William H. Coles Says:

    Use the lower case, "you're . . ."

  9. Top 9 Sites on Dialogue – I used them myself | M. M. Hoffman Says:

    […] 3. Creating Effective Dialogue by William H. Coles […]

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