Dynamic Dialogue

Dynamic Dialogue

The Gift of Gab

Dialogue is an important tool that every writer should strive to master. Good dialogue does the following:

  • It yanks the reader into the story, rather than keeping him at arm’s length, as a casual observer.
  • It gives valuable insight into each character – his socioeconomic and educational background, his mannerisms, his thought processes, his reactions to others, his attitude.
  • It provides clues about the time period and setting.
  • It helps keep you from getting bogged down in lengthy narration, provided you don’t let your speaker get bogged down in lengthy narration.

Good dialogue is dialogue that is essential to the story or to the readers’ understanding of the character. It always serves a purpose – either it moves the story forward towards its conclusion, or it illustrates an important facet of the speaker’s character. Good dialogue is not idle chit-chat.

Writing Believable Dialogue

Believable or natural dialogue is not the same as “real speech.” Listen to a group of people talking in a restaurant (yes, of course- eavesdrop!). Record them or attempt to faithfully jot down what’s said. Real, everyday speech is not very interesting to the casual observer, for the most part. It won’t be interesting to your readers, either. How many real conversations have you heard that are devoid of annoying little lack-of-forethought time fillers, like “well,” “you know,” “uh,” “um,” “like,” and so on? A well-placed “uh” or “um” can render dialogue more believable but use them very sparingly to avoid turning your dialogue into asleep aid.

Good dialogue should sound natural. One of the best ways to gauge this is to read it aloud, or ask a friend to read it aloud to you. Subvocalize, if you’re very shy. If your tripping over the words, or getting your tongue wrapped around your eyeteeth and can’t see what you’re saying, then it’s not natural.

Try to make dialogue match character. Consider the character’s socioeconomic status and background. A guttersnipe speaks differently than a college professor. Consider “My Fair Lady.” It would be easy to distinguish Henry Higgins from Eliza Doolittle, even if the same person read their lines. As Eliza learns, she is more careful and precise in her speech, even, than Higgins – because she is conscious of and cares about the perceptions of others. To her, it is not a game. He can afford to be casual in his speech, even though it is not truly in his nature to be; she cannot.

Use dropped terminal consonants (doin’, goin’, seein’, wanna, gimme, etc.), contractions (don’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, etc.), profanity and slang if the character would naturally use them. Pretend your mother and your Fifth Grade English teacher will never read your work. You can’t be a real writer and live in fear that someone will be shocked to learn that you know “those words.” Consider using profanity when it’s out of character to give dialogue “shock value.” For example, if the preacher’s wife runs across a dead body in her geranium bed, she’s not likely to say, “Oh, dear, it’s a corpse.” She might actually scream and yell a bad word. It’ll get the reader’s attention if you suddenly have a well-established character act out of character. That said, remember that profanity is the last resort of little minds, and use it sparingly – for deliberate effect.

Show – don’t tell! Make sure your characters understand this rule. Using dialogue to relate past events may tempt you to tell the story in between quotation marks. Don’t let one character simply narrate the whole story. Dialogue should give us insight into each character’s unique traits – it’s your opportunity, regardless of the point of view from which you’ve chosen to write, to give the reader a glimpse of the character’s thoughts and emotions. Use dialogue to show how characters respond to situations and react to one another.

A Few Quick Tips

  • Consider the character’s socioeconomic and educational background.
  • Give the character a distinctive “pet phrase” or set of commonly-used expressions (e.g., “Valley Girl” speech). Be careful not to exaggerate speech mannerisms to the point of annoying the reader; a little seasoning in the pot works better than dumping in a whole jar of spice.
  • Show, don’t tell! Avoid academic or wordy statements, unless they reflect a character trait.
  • Use contractions, dropped letters (goin’, doin’, etc.) slang, profanity, accents, etc. with deliberate intent.
  • Recognize when characters are likely to relate past events in present tense.

AVOID:

  • Unnecessary repetition of a phrase or idea.
  • Small talk that doesn’t illustrate character OR move the story forward.
  • Having one character address another by name (they know to whom they are talking; it should be clear enough to your reader in context and by other means)
  • Wordy, academic, stiff, stilted phrases rolling off your characters’ tongues, unless it’s a character trait.

Notes on Formatting Dialogue

  • Dialogue starts and ends with quotation marks: ” and “
  • If one speaker’s lines extend beyond one paragraph, each paragraph of dialogue opens with opening quotation marks (“); the last paragraph ends with closing quotation marks (“).
  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks: “And so,” explained Liz, “that’s why I killed him.”
  • When one speaker is quoting another, the quotation is enclosed in single quotation marks: ‘ and ‘ For example: “I told him Liz said ‘Eat more oatmeal.'”

Challenge Yourself!

Try writing a story using nothing but dialogue between two or more characters. Don’t include any dialogue tags (“he said,” “she cried,” etc.). See if you can convey all the elements of a good story, including distinct and interesting characters, through dialogue alone.

Sara’s Lair

Sara’s Lair

Sara stretched, arching backwards until she heard vertebrae pop, but careful not to tip her desk chair backwards far enough to fall on the stone floor. She stood, touched her toes and did several side-bends. She studied her laptop screen, contemplating her next move. She was no Chess Master, but playing Chess with her friend Andrej helped her to clear her mind and practice her strategic thinking. It relaxed her.

 

Sara paced the small room she jokingly called her “lair.” She had inherited the odd cave dwelling from her parents, Sonya and Jacob Heller, a couple of eccentric teachers who’d “gone off the grid” some twenty years ago. They had bought a small island – a tiny, unpopulated part of the Canaries and technically ruled by Spain – and built a home carved into the side of an extinct volcano. Secluded, secret, and cold, this is where Sonya and Jacob had raised and homeschooled Sara and her brothers. All power was provided by wind and solar arrays installed by Jacob. He taught Sara, Todd, and Josh basic concepts – physics, structural and electrical engineering, agriculture, and computer science. They bought a boat, having discovered that their shipbuilding skills were lacking and not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to their presence on the island by bringing in experts to teach them. That’s how they got supplies they couldn’t grow or build from the island’s native resources.

One of their textbooks was The Anarchist’s Cookbook, by William Powell. Sara never had any interest in explosives; she was a klutz, convinced she’d blow her own hands and face off. But other sections of the book intrigued her. Her mother, Sonya, had caught her trying to bake and powder banana peels in a lame attempt to slip her brother Todd a low-effort hallucinogen, revenge for his trying to convince her a moldy peanut would get her high and make her see God. It hadn’t. But for six weeks, Todd and Josh had tormented her by humming “Found a Peanut, Found a Peanut…” every time she walked into a room, which triggered a bout of dry heaves at the memory.

The boys, naturally, liked making things that go “boom!” and they helped their dad build several rooms onto their mountain cave dwelling. Sara thought, once, that her family must be the envy of bats everywhere. She called Josh “Batman.”

“You think I’m Robin?” asked Todd. He was older than Josh, and wanted to be Batman.

“No. I’m Robin,” said Sara. You’re–” Sara’s mouth twisted with the intensity of thought and impish amusement.

“Say ‘Alfred’ and you’re dead,” warned Todd.

“I was going to say The Joker,” said Sara, dodging a wrench lobbed by her big brother. Josh snickered. Todd, as The Joker. The kid had no sense of humor, which only made it twice as funny. And maybe twice as dangerous.

Josh and Todd had gone off-island to college, where they got caught trying to steal enriched uranium to build a small nuclear reactor in a storage closet. Josh had cut a deal with the government that sent Todd, Sonya, and Jacob to jail for a very long time. As it turned out, Sonya and Jacob had other intentions for that uranium, and had tried to use Josh’s science project as a cover. He had warned Sara just in time for her to move into their “safe house.” The safe house was not a secret – it was a decoy. It was the ordinary little ramshackle house near the windswept beach, far below the cliff house, that they’d designed and built to be raided, should that day come.

And right on cue, it came. Sara was tending her little garden of tomatoes and feeding her chickens, collecting eggs. She had even dressed the part, wearing a colorful skirt and matching kerchief, a loose peasant blouse, and hemp sandals. She feigned convincing ignorance. A small twitch at the corner of her mouth, as Agent Hawkins inspected her ankles and searched her eyes for “tells,” might have belied “innocence.”

Internet was provided by a satellite that Sara had quietly hacked into when she was seventeen. It could be turned on or cut with the flick of a switch, and Sara flicked that switch as soon as she received the message from Josh. Interpol could not believe a young woman had been living alone on the island all her life, but they had no evidence (and spotty phone connections, themselves) to prove otherwise and apparently, no stamina for mountain climbing and caving.

Ten years later, no one had noticed the satellite breach. Maybe they had noticed but hadn’t cared. That seemed unlikely, but Sara never assumed she was that good. Instead, she assumed that multiple government organizations knew and lay in wait for her to make a mistake, to break other rules, to be a thorn worth plucking from their side. Until then, she’d done nothing worse than stealing the neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal, albeit through a homemade satellite dish. She was Batman’s Robin, not the Evil Villain.

Sara earned a decent income designing Internet security curriculum to help teachers who barely knew a Trojan hijack from a Durex condom. The worst thing she’d done was write original essays for lazy-ass, cheating students, for money. She didn’t envy Batman, who languished on the mainland under the watchful eye of Spanish authorities, lest he have his own plans to follow in the family footsteps – but having cast herself in the role of Robin, she felt obligated to notify those several schools—anonymously, of course—that some of the work earning straight A’s might not be the students’ own. It would be easy enough to determine whether the writing was their own, using a short, in-class test. “Just have them write a story. Ten paragraphs is enough, I think. Run it through SLSoftware’s ‘Writing Sherlock’ program, and it will return a probability score telling you whether they wrote their own essay.”

Meanwhile, Sara’s Lair Software (known to the world as SLSoftware) sold the application for a pretty penny. She didn’t lose sleep over training her own algorithms using the unethical students’ own emails as they pleaded with her to swear confidentiality. Sara could honestly promise them that she would never tell anyone their secrets.

She didn’t miss The Joker, much; she missed her parents even less. But some days, Sara missed The Batman. Josh didn’t dare risk exposing her or their “lair.” For now, she would have to make do with “Andrej.” Sara returned to her laptop and typed:

“Check.”


Short story brought to you by Creative Copy Challenge # 655 | Writing Prompts – Creative Copy Challenge (wordpress.com) and the words: Curriculum, Help, Teach, Study, Write, Paragraph, Essay, Short, Story, and Test and Fiction Monday Ninety-first Edition ~ Reflections ~ Vinitha Dileep with the prompt: “Secret.” (There is also a lovely photo prompt on Vinitha’s blog. If I didn’t think “that’s no place to grow old,” it reminds me of my longing to live in an elegant cave dwelling, high above the sea. As my husband and I drove around the Canary Islands, last summer, I would point to the volcanic cliffs, saying, “There, that one – that’s got an incredible view. Let’s make our cave home there.” Well, we’d need an elevator or Amazon drone delivery of food, but that’s the only flaw in my plan.)

In the Blink of an Eye

In the Blink of an Eye

“It can all change in the blink of an eye.” Marianne sighed, waving around the quaint little village square at the new shops. Global brand names, like Kettle & Crock, or La Belle Epoque, carrying Chinese-made goods, had begun to elbow out the colorful little local merchants and their local crafts, giving the landlord more than they’d asked for in rents.

“That’s progress, Marianne. Everything changes, in time.” Alex had an eye on one of the lots overlooking the sea, and grand designs of his own to build a boutique hotel with breathtaking views on all sides. Marianne had her misgivings; the new hotel would block a lovely view of the cliffs from the ancient cottages across the street. Surely the community would not be so welcoming as the overseas landowners and their agents.

“I suppose so,” she answered, trying ineffectually to hide her doubts.

A woman, made of wind-weathered marble and brass, stood in the center of the square, silently willing Marianne to speak, for she could not. Her name, forgotten a thousand years ago, was Rhodos. She knew well how quickly things could change; she had seen nations come and go. As long as she had the sun on her face and the stars to gaze upon at night, she was content to serve as a sort of sundial for the little town. But the buildings men spoke of where they thought she could not hear them would tower over her like Colossus, blotting out the light, robbing her of the stars, making of themselves the only thing her eyes could drink in. She would not have it. She would will herself to crumble and fall away to dust and rust, as only stone and brass could do.

The one thing she could not do, the one thing she longed to do, was to effect change of her own. She had tried that, once; now, her lips were sealed. Her tongue, immobile. Oh, yes! It could all change in the blink of an eye. But Rhodos, Poseidon’s daughter, frozen in marble and brass, was cursed with an inability to blink.


This story is brought to you by Fiction Monday Ninetieth Edition ~ Reflections ~ Vinitha Dileep and the word, “blink.”

A Mockery of Diamonds

A Mockery of Diamonds

Rafe had made a mockery of diamonds.

Diamond rings, the symbol of strong, enduring love and the promise of a life together. A stone, really. Nothing more than a rock, vomited from the bowels of a volcano. Perfect clarity, forged from a dusty black lump of coal  under heat and pressure. What woman alive couldn’t relate to diamonds? She had read, somewhere, that only a diamond was hard enough to cut glass. Only a woman’s fingernails could cut the flesh of a man’s back in passion. Clara traced a finger, wordlessly, down the claw marks while Rafe slept.

Clara examined her own fingernails in the moonlight. Short, round, filed smooth, beginning to wear from rocking against steel strings to produce a poignant vibrato as she played the Csárdás on her father’s violin. A bracelet of delicate, diamond-studded sunflowers circled her wrist, locked by two hands clasped in friendship. An extravagant gift meant to buy Clara’s silence, after she met her father on the steps of a crumbling  Italian villa in Rome, where he had been kissing the wild Violetta while her mother languished like a hothouse flower at home.

Clara glanced at her watch. It was nearly 4:00 AM. She laid the violin to rest in its velvet-lined case and considered breakfast. Absentmindedly, she proofed the yeast, mixed in the flour, salt, and sugar, a bit of milk, butter, and egg, and let the mixer knead it while she stared out the kitchen window. She left it to rise for an hour, while she threw some of her things into her carry-on. Rafe stirred. Clara remembered when the rise and fall of his chest might have stirred things deep within her. Now, her only thought was breakfast.

Before baking the brioche, she tucked her diamond ring into the loaf, figuring it needed a bit more time before it was strong enough to endure the promise of a life together without love. As she closed the oven door and walked out the front, Clara knew that she never would be.


This story brought to you by Creative Copy Challenge #654 | Writing Prompts – Creative Copy Challenge (wordpress.com) and the words Coal, Diamond, Ring, Flower, Flour, Circle, Sunflower, Bracelet, Clasp, and Watch.

The Things We Do For Love

The Things We Do For Love

All day, it had taken him, it seemed, to travel the length of the patio. He had soldiered on, putting one foot in front of the other, to escape the punishing heat of the afternoon sun on scorching cement. “I’m impressed, Marty,” Stella said, sounding anything but. “I didn’t think you’d make it past the joint.” Stella sat on the cool, damp earth, where she’d been watching Marty from beneath the shady arc of spring leaves.

Marty had to hand it to her: light-fingered Stella had stolen his heart. Now, he had to toe the line, even if it killed him. At this rate, he was pretty sure it would. Marty rolled off the cement, onto the damp, fragrant earth next to Stella. He flicked a wrist in her direction, as if to say, “It’s nothing.” It wasn’t ‘nothing,’ of course.

Farmer McNulty’s calf was happily suckling at his mama’s teat while she absently swatted a horsefly from her hip with her tail. Who would have thought that the roan calf, newly born and trembling on shaky legs, had almost been the end of Marty? He felt as if he had a million legs, and every one of them ached. If only he could be sure he’d finally earned his Stella’s favor, Marty could die contented. If only she’d acknowledge the effort he’d made to cross the patio to be near her. As his eyes closed in exhaustion, he felt the ground vibrating and heard the delicate thumping of Stella’s little feet before she gave him a sharp peck and gulped him down, laughing as his thousand tiny toes tickled her gullet.

The early bird catches the worm, but the patient one gets a real rib-tickler of a millipede.


This story was brought to you by Creative Copy Challenge #653 | Writing Prompts – Creative Copy Challenge (wordpress.com), and the words Foot, Hand, Finger, Toe, Arc, Calf, Hip, Leg, Rib, Wrist