For Part Two in our ‘How to Write Perfect Dialogue’ series, we show you just how you can give your dialogue power and impact. If you missed Part One ‘How to Use Dialogue Tags for Maximum Impact‘ you can take a look at it here.
Written dialogue must serve a purpose and it must be delivered as a more purposeful version of our real, everyday conversations. In order to write perfect dialogue, however, what we must avoid is precisely mimicking real-life conversations. For example, listen to a snippet of conversation, note the number of ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ during the conversation and the number of times conversations are happening just for the sake of conversation – to fill awkward silences, to pass the time of day, and you will start to realise why.
Used correctly dialogue gives power to both our characters and our plot in several ways:
It gives us greater insight into a character through their actions and reactions
It helps establish a character’s individuality through distinctive speaking styles
It helps to show the mood of the character
It is a vehicle for exposition
It builds, atmosphere and tension
It helps to vary pace
It helps to move the plot forward
Give power to your dialogue with these five simple tips:
Write perfect dialogue by giving it impact through white space
One of the strongest points of dialogue can be the action and reaction that a character displays during conversation and what they leave unsaid and what is instead inferred. That usually falls into the realm of the white spaces of dialogue and it is through this white space that we achieve the greatest impact.
Load the dialogue with subtext to allow emotion through in an exchange without necessarily telling us about it. Infer and hint at it. Get your characters bristling in a scene, or fill them with fear – describe the action that shows the emotion or the unsaid rather than telling us. More about Translation Agency UK
Intersperse dialogue with action
Action holds tension by breaking up dialogue into smaller more digestible pieces. It also gives us more insight into the characters and the emotion of the scene without having to explain it all – keeping the tension real in the reader’s imagination.
Action enhances dialogue and draws attention to those important unspoken moments, a clearing of the throat, a nervous flick of the hair, pacing up and down, jangling car keys, staring down at shoes. Or, the action could be much bigger like punching a wall or throwing a plate.
Create a conflict of desire in dialogue
Whilst dialogue doesn’t always have to be an argument or a confrontation, it must have tension in one form or another to keep it purposeful. Generally a character wants something out of a conversation and it is this desire for something that creates the tension.
It can be as simple as wanting to sit down:
“Is that a spare seat?”
“It is, yes.”
“Can I sit there?”
“Ok, let me just move my bags.”
In this example, we see no conflict – Sarah wants something and Sam gives it to her. The exchange seems meaningless.
This could instead be:
“Hi.” Sam nodded at Sarah.
“Is that a spare seat?” Sarah gestured at the seat beside him.
“It is, yes.” Sam hesitated glancing down the aisle.
“Can I sit there?”
“Well, ok.” Sam slowly moved his bags and made a small space on the seat beside him.
Automatically, as we read and see Sam’s reaction a couple of things happen:
We start to ask questions
The uncertainty increases the tension in this scene
So, a simple conflict – Sarah wants to sit down, Sam is hesitant and clearly there is some reason as to why he doesn’t want her to sit down – becomes meaningful and progressive as we want to know more.
Avoid idiot speech and exposition overkill
Too much exposition can dilute tension in dialogue – that is not to say, however, that it should never be present in dialogue – when used correctly it can be a good way to fill the reader in. When dialogue becomes too exposition heavy it becomes unnatural, slow and cumbersome. To avoid these heavy chunks of exposition, try drip-feeding the relevant information in throughout the novel.
Avoid the blatant use of ‘Idiot Speech’ just to get the information across to the reader. For example, where one character explains something to another character that actually that character already knows. This will come across as unnatural and clunky and tend to break the tension.
Get technical and vary the pace of the dialogue
When you listen to a real conversation between two people, you will notice how the pace of the conversation varies. Use quick and snappy dialogue for pacey parts of the scene. Or, if you just want to get the message across to your reader without diluting the message, stick to fewer words and cut out the niceties unless they serve a specific purpose. Write the sentences as short fragments and keep up this snappy rhythm, or in visual terms – leave lots of white space on the page of dialogue.