Friday, August 20, 2010

The Three Rules of Dialogue

by Jean Henry Mead

I’m one of those writers who fills the page with dialogue as opposed to narrative because dialogue is my forte. Those of us with an ear for accents and speech patterns are fortunate to be able to transcribe them onto the page. But dialogue that doesn’t further the story or define characters will cause a manuscript to be rejected, no matter how well it’s written.

I remember reading Robyn Carr’s article years ago about the three rules of dialogue, which I copied onto 3 x 5 cards for future reference.

Rule #1: Dialogue should tell the reader something about the character’s personality or emotions, or at least reinforce something already established, like anger, timidity, cruelty, impatience or perfectionism. Instead of having a character greet someone by saying “hello,” have him say, “Where the hell have you been?” or “Do you know what time it is?” and tap his foot impatiently.

Rule #2: Dialogue needs to propel the plot so that the reader can get to know the characters through the way they react to stimuli that directly affects their lives. Their conversations need to establish or reinforce their emotions, their relationships, and the roles they play in the plot to enhance conflict and tension. Even when writing comedy, the character’s reactions to one another are actually conflict in its truest sense.

Rule #3: Dialogue must individualize each character. No two characters should sound alike just as no two people use the same words or phrases. Each character needs to have his or her own expressions, dialects, euphemisms, speech styles and inflections. But that’s not all. Each one also must have his own value system, motivations, personal habits and other traits that are expressed in dialogue.

For example, if you listed each character with a number instead of a name and gender, would they be distinguishable from one another?

Every line of dialogue has a job to do. When you’re editing and polishing a second draft, eliminate every word that doesn’t need to be there. People rarely speak in complete sentences so make sure your characters don’t sound as though they’re reciting an English lesson.

Creating a character sheet is a good way to establish who your characters really are. Describe each one physically and include his or her basic background information. Then consider pertinent information that will determine her dialogue. How well educated is she? Is her voice husky, squeaky, soft or loud? Does she have verbal ticks? Is she shy and stutters when she speaks? Does she use slang? Does she speak haltingly? Or is she articulate and chooses her words well?

How motivated is your protagonist? Is he aggressive, single-minded, abrasive, generous or power hungry? Any or all those traits should show up in his dialogue. Geographical differences also affect a character’s dialogue as does his education, or lack of schooling. If a character dropped out of school in the 7th grade, he won’t have an impressive vocabulary, unless he’s very motivated and schools himself on his own. If that’s the case, make sure your reader knows it. One way is to have other characters talk about it when he’s not around or praise him for it when he is.

According to Robin Carr, "Characters come alive when every piece of dialogue uttered develops their personalities; when the action, tension and drama are heightened because of what they said, how they said it and when they chose to speak  and when the characters’ complex individualism sets them apart from each other."


Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Jean. Your comments on compelling dialogue made me think of Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas series. These books are packed with brilliant description, but when dialogue is used, it is written in a manner that only Odd Thomas would speak. Every word hits the mark, often resulting in a smile or laugh from the reader.

Bill Kirton said...

I'd never read those 'rules' before Jean and they certainly spell out the many complexities we can convey if we let our characters speak in their own voices instead of just articulating what we want them to say. I love seeing lots of dialogue in a book (as long as the writer knows what he/she is doing). But, having started as a writer of plays, I was surprised to find in some of my early drafts of novels that the surrounding prose had somehow 'contaminated' the way the characters were speaking. It's one of the reasons why I always read my stuff aloud to check its authenticity.