Sample Lesson

                                               Dialogue


DIALOGUE IS WHAT YOUR CHARACTERS SAY to each other. This goes beyond a description of their thoughts or actions and features their actual voices. We hear how they operate, what their accent is, what they are trying to say. Dialogue differentiates your characters and also brings them together.

"How're you doing?" she asked.

"Not bad," he croaked.

For their words to have meaning, an author needs to portray characters in the midst of a real situation. Something needs to be happening. They can't be speaking in a vacuum, although they could be speaking while vacuuming. Something must be going on. Grandmother's teeth, all of a sudden, look big and she appears to be hungry. Judy bursts into the room with news that she knows Brad won't believe, but has to tell him anyway. Bob is trying to explain his suntan to his boss.

Sometimes it is as much about what they don't say as what they do. Most people do not say what is really in their minds. They're afraid or cautious or don't really know. The reader can gain a lot, not only from how a thing is said, but from what is not said and how a character doesn't say it. Evasive dialogue can be a way of holding the tension of a scene.

Setting is important. Where characters have a conversation can be a significant element and can add to the impact, the meaning, and the depth of what is going on. Remember to include specific detail about both the setting and your characters. Show them looking away. Have them clear their throats, shuffle their feet, etc. Make clear how they are standing or sitting. Let your reader hear the pauses, as well as the words. Describe their breathing, show/tell their reactions to what is being said. All of these reactions and actions are as important as the lines being spoken.

Dialogue is also an essential element in the rhythm of a story. Besides having its own inherent rhythm, it can provide a break between descriptions and exposition. It is literally another voice that acts on the reader. It can keep him awake. It can tell him a joke. It can speak directly to his heart or mind.


Exercises (about 10 minutes each)

Exercise 1 

1. You work downtown in a tall building. Your job with ADD Security Systems is quite demanding. You are rushing because it is ten minutes of 8 and you've already been late twice this week. You enter an elevator and push the button for the 21st floor. There are three other passengers with you. Write the conversation that takes place between yourself and these other characters.

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2. With a sudden jerk and a groaning of metal, the elevator comes to an abrupt halt. The lights are flashing and it is apparent that you are stuck between the 14th and 15th floors. Now what does everyone have to say?

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Dialogue can move the plot forward, but make sure your characters don't talk too much. If they explain everything, it will sound phony. The dialogue must be real and convincing or the characters won't be. Your ear for dialogue is more developed than you might think. After all, you've been listening and participating in dialogue all your life. Not only that, but you've read it in books. You've seen and heard it in the theater and at the movies. You're an expert.

A good way to check whether the dialogue you've written is effective or not is to read it out loud. You'll be able to hear where it works and where it doesn't. Remember that characters, just like people, are idiosyncratic. Every one has a different way of speaking. It is one of the many things that distinguishes them from each other.

Exercise 2 

It's lonely out on the highway where you are hitchhiking and the rides are few and far between. You see a huge 18-wheeler slowing down. It gets bigger as it comes closer. It's covered in mud. The airbrakes sigh as it reaches you. All that motion finally comes to a halt and it towers over you, shuddering and making a series of automotive noises. The door opens and, with more than a little trepidation, you climb in. The driver is as big as the truck and hasn't shaved in three days. He's got an earring and a tattoo on his arm that says, I Love Martha. You start rolling down the road and, before you know it, you find that this guy is really okay. He's shown you pictures of his family and now, two hours later, you've learned a lot about him. It's night and the miles fly by. You find yourself telling him something you've never told anyone before. Write out that conversation. Write for 10 - 15 minutes.

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When writing dialogue, let your characters go wild. Don't censor them. Let them talk. You can always edit them later. You never know what amazing thing will pop out of their mouths.

Exercise 3

Go to a cafe, an airport, or a bar and listen to the way people talk. Without upsetting anyone, write down the dialogue you hear. It may surprise you and give you a new appreciation for the selective editing a writer must do to create dialogue that works on the page.


Thanks for writing. Have fun. See you next lesson.

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