Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dialogue Brings Characters to Life

by Jean Henry Mead

I enjoy writing dialogue because it’s an excellent way to bring fictional characters to life. I began my writing career as a news reporter and photojournalist, so dialogue was not something I learned to write. Fortunately, I have an ear for dialects and speech patterns, and journalism taught me brevity. So my characters rarely ramble or veer off topic.

I learned the secrets of good dialogue from Sol Stein, who said screenwriting courses are a great way to learn to write conversations. Although I wasn’t able to take his dialogue course at UC Irvine, I benefited from reading his book, Sol Stein on Writing. In it he says “Talk is repetitive, full of rambling, incomplete, or run-on sentences, and usually contains a lot of unnecessary words. Dialogue, contrary to popular belief, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.

“Some people mistakenly believe that all a writer has to do is turn on a tape recorder to capture dialogue.” He also stressed that, “Dialogue is always in immediate scene, which is one reason readers relish it.”

I sometimes write too much dialogue instead of narrative because my sleuths discuss the murders they investigate. When I sit down at my computer each morning to write, I look forward to listening to what my characters have to say. After the sixth book in my Logan and Cafferty series, I know my characters well and their conversations fill my head as though I were eavesdropping on old friends.

Dialogue is a good way to insert humor into the plot. In Gray Wolf Mountain, Dana and Sarah encounter an old man whose grammar would cause an English teacher to cringe. It was fun writing his conversations and making readers aware that although he had little formal education, he was well versed in the ways of wildlife, especially the endangered gray wolf.

Dialogue says a lot about a character in very few words. The reader should be able to discern the character’s ethnic background, education, attitude, social standing, etc. through dialogue, and every word must count. Unnecessary dialogue or narrative can turn readers off because they want to get on with the story. I aim for one line-dialogue—no more than three—from each character. When exposition requires more than three lines, I switch to narrative or interruption from another character because, in my opinion, excessive dialogue slows down the plot.

Dialogue should be written and rewritten carefully, preferably aloud to maintain sentence flow.  

In my latest release, Murder at the Mansion, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty manage some brief but humorous dialogue while escaping a killer who tricks them into flying to the Alaskan outback where their lives are placed in even more danger. If not for their dialogue, the reader would not fully experience their fear or their secret plot to escape their captors.


Bill Kirton said...

As enlightening as usual, Jean. I know what you mean about 'too much dialogue' rather than narrative but I prefer to think (as you imply) that it can be a better way of narrating. Or, to satisfy the creative writing aficionados, it's a great way of showing, not telling. And humour that comes from the mouths of the characters not only helps with their characterisation but is often funnier than the humour we insert as (intrusive) narrators.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Bill. I love quirky characters because they can get away with saying things that I wouldn't dare. But I disagreed with an acquisitions editor who said that too much dialogue weakens the plot. My books are all character driven and their thoughts are vastly more important than my narrative. Thanks for your own thoughts.

Jackie King said...

Good post, Jean. I think most readers love good dialogue because it moves the story along quickly. I sometimes like to add what the protagonist is thinking, along with his/her dialogue because that's a good way to add depth to the scene.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Jackie. I agree about character's thoughts, which I also use. It does add depth to the story.