Dialogue is a key part of any story and it’s usually what readers find most engrossing. They might skim long descriptions, but when they get to someone speaking that’s where they’ll get pulled back in.
What people say and how they say it not only tells the reader what’s going on, it also sets mood, gives an idea of character and provides a natural back and forth that will naturally keep readers engaged.
It helps to keep the flow going when characters are talking, and being able to convey how characters are saying things without explicitly stating it is a very useful skill.
Here’s a basic example of what I mean: “Go to Hell!”
You know how that’s being said without my having to put he said angrily in the narrative. Hearing how the character speaks in the moment is a powerful tool, but it’s easier for some emotions than others.
Anger, like in the example above, is pretty straightforward. Exclamation mark, swear words, all caps—these are pretty easy to work in and for the reader to pick up on. Other emotions and tones aren’t so obvious, but there are a number of techniques that can help.
The best place to see all the different approaches is to read plays and screenplays. These are very dialogue intensive media with a specific culture of putting the bare minimum of descriptors when it comes to what is being said.
Reading the scripts of plays and movies that you like or that are of the same genre that you write can be very illuminating, but it’s also very time consuming. You can’t just read them like you would a normal story, even though you may find yourself doing just that. You have to stop yourself from being swept along—which can be quite difficult since that’s exactly what it’s designed to do—and go over the same section repeatedly until you see exactly what’s being transmitted and how.
This is quite tedious and not for everyone, but if it’s something you find interesting, as I do, then it will prove to be very revealing. In the meantime, here are some things I’ve picked up.
It’s helps if we see the thing that causes an emotion. For example, if a mother is irritated by a child focused on their iPhone when she’s trying to tell him something, then that’s a lot easier to convey than the same woman still in a bad mood because of that child a chapter later when she’s at the shops.
Having the trigger in the same scene means you can establish the cause of the emotion, assuming you can clearly set up the situation (who doesn’t find being ignored by someone glued to their phone irritating?), and the reader will simply transfer their feelings onto the characters.
Using specific verbs that suggest a particular mind set also helps. If she takes the phone from him, it tells you a lot more if she snatches it or rips it from his hands.
This is particularly useful when you have a set of short question and answer type dialogue where you don’t want to break it up with descriptions of people’s raised eyebrows and tightened jaws.
Once the phone is grabbed, the tone of the conversation between mother and child is clearly defined and doesn’t need to be restated after every line.
One strong action, whether a pat on the back or a surreptitious look in someone’s shopping bag, can establish the tone for any length of interaction.
Another method to control the tone is to use tempo. If a character is asked a question and then gives a long answer, that has a different effect to a character who is asked a question, gives a partial answer, has to be prompted for more, and so on.
Who talks more, who interrupts, who holds back, these things give an indication of a character’s state of mind and attitude without having to say Dave paused and looked out of the window to tell the reader what’s going on if you vary the tempo and line length.
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