Sunday, October 5, 2014


Let’s talk about talking. The three different types of dialogue are 1) direct, 2) indirect, and 3) mixed.

Direct dialogue is the most dramatic form. By convention, direct dialogue requires quotation marks and each speaker gets his or her own paragraph. At the end of each speaker’s part, simple attributions (he said, she said) are best, and even they can be omitted when it’s clear who is speaking.

“You?” she said. “No way.”
“Trust me,” he said, “in a big way.”
“That’s just it; I don’t trust you.”

While “he said, she said” are virtually silent and invisible to the reader, the menagerie of other attributions (asked, answered, replied, retorted, added, commented, snarled, whined, etc.) draw attention to themselves and, like blush, should be used sparingly. Also, resist the urge to glom adverbs onto the attributions (she said grudgingly, he said wolfishly, etc.). Adverbs are not needed and are often used to explain what is already obvious to the reader (“I despise you!” she said angrily).
Using indirect dialogue can summarize a conversation in a brief report that, without quoting, still conveys richness:

Sheryl said that going to bed with David was selfish, crazy and impossible to resist.

Mixed dialogue, the third type, is a hybrid of direct and indirect:

Rob told Trisha she was narcissistic. That she paid no attention to what was right for him. Their pink bedroom with the four-poster bed and lace curtains was a good example. He told her, “I don’t want frills and flowers!” He said it two or three times.

  People speak variously and dialogue is an effective way to establish unique characters. A common critique in writing circles is that a story’s characters all talk alike. Hear the difference in the diction of these two speakers:

“I’m not a forensic scientist, but it appears to me the bullet entered her body from behind.”
“Hell, you don’t need to be no expert on this stuff. Sure as hell she got offed from the back.”

When we converse, we communicate not just with words but with our bodies. Realistic dialogue is more than a sequence of quotations; it includes nervous grins, fiddling with fingernails, lowered eyes, raised eyebrows: our whole human language. Such details and actions that punctuate dialogue are called “beats.” Writing good beats makes for vivid conversations that your readers can readily follow, and allows you to show which character is speaking without using attributes.

“Sorry, but that’s not what we agreed to.” Johnny tapped the contract on his desk, then flipped to the last page and held it up. “This is your signature, right?
I was doomed. I nodded and stood to leave.
“Just a sec.” He opened a drawer and took out a Glock handgun. “Take this. It goes along with the envelope.”

Beats are also used for conveying a realistic rhythm of speech. Instead of writing “he paused,” toss in a beat:

“Divorce?” He dragged on his Camel. “Really?” He screwed his mouth to the side and blew out smoke. “How long you been married, four, five months?”
“One hundred forty one days.” She glanced at her watch. “And eight hours, fifteen minutes.” She gave an unhappy laugh. “But who’s counting?”

Also consider using sound effects as a rhythmic element in your beats:

“A hundred dollars.” He stacked a log vertically on the stump. “What you mean is…” He swung the axe and the wood split halfway with a loud crack! “…a hundred more.” He swung again. Crack! The split halves fell onto piles on either side of the stump. “That makes a couple hundred.” He stacked another log without looking at his son. “I got to ask myself if you’re worth it.”

Lastly, keep in mind that the words in a dialogue reveal only the surface. Like icebergs, most of a conversation’s weight is hidden below. You can create tension between what is visible and what is submerged by keeping the dialogue evasive, filled with unspoken feelings.

If he used one more French phrase tonight, she was going to spit out the Bordeaux he ordered for her and get a pitcher of Bud. Why was he showing off? He grew up right here in Burnt Mill, same as her. He worked at the lumberyard, like her dad and brothers, and he drove a Ford pick-up, not a Lamborghini.
J'aime vos beaux yeux verts.”
She smiled. “Oui, monsieur!” She had no idea what he said. By now any other guy would have said something sweet, maybe complimented her on her green eyes. How do you say in French, “Billy Ray, just be yourself!”

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