Blue Square

Writer

Life lessons

on the craft 

Top Five Dialogue Techniques

This past winter I took a ski trip with friends visiting from the Midwest. They knew the basics of skiing, but had never spent a day on mountains as massive as the Rockies. When a single slope can stretch as long as a mile, small technique improvements can really save you a lot of energy. So, when I saw my friend growing tired in the middle of the day, I told him how to hold and point his shoulders. It seems silly – give more advice about his upper body when clearly his lower body was doing all the work. But one element greatly affects each other element.


Writing is no different.


Lots of my clients have really great stories and really great characters. Delivering those ideas into their readers heads requires the utilization of not just one, but all techniques and elements of writing. And like my friend and his shoulders, lots of writers don’t think about how dialogue affects many different elements of writing all at the same time. So, below are my Top Five Dialogue Techniques.


ONE

First and foremost, characters should never say what either character knows, nor should they say what they or any other character in the scene has done. This negatively affects narrative action and plot. Instead, have the characters REACT to the narrative action.


Bad: “Wow! That backflip you just did on the trampoline was amazing. Where did you learn to do that?”


Better: Steve launched from the center of the trampoline and gracefully flipped backwards. “Wow!” Susy said, “where did you learn to do that?”


TWO

Use "said" and only "said" (okay, maybe "asked," too – but that’s it). Any other dialogue tag covers for weak dialogue diction. It removes character emotion and replaces it with "Telling". If the words the character says don’t indicate the character’s mood and intentions, use stronger language inside the quote.


Bad: “You are so stupid,” she yelled angrily.


Better: “You are the stupidest [expletive] person on earth!” she said.


THREE

To indicate your character is unhappy use shorter, clipped sentences. To make your character happy, use longer sentences. Flow, narrative voice, and character emotions come through this technique. This concept is a sliding scale -- the more or less you utilize indicates the varying degree of emotion.


Less happy:

A: “Want to go to the movies?”

B: “No.” [1 word]


Neutral:

A: “Want to go to the movies?”

B: “Is there anything good playing right now?” [7 words]


More happy:

A: “Want to go to the movies?

B: “Oh my gosh, that would be awesome because I can’t wait to see the new Marvel movie because I heard that the ending will completely blow us all away.” [29 words]


FOUR

Your characters should rarely (maybe never) ask more than one question before hearing an answer. Yes, your character may have many questions, but when s/he asks them all at once it’s just an overload.


Bad:

A: “How did the date go? What movie did you see? Did he pay for dinner? Did he kiss you goodbye? What’s he like just the two of you?”

B: ???? [Where does character B even start to answer those questions?]


Better:

A: “How’d the date go?”

B: “He’s really sweet, but there was no spark”

A: “That's too bad”


FIVE

The last word or two must be the most important. Those are the words that a) the reader will remember easiest and b) what the other character will respond to.


Bad:

A: “How did the date go? What movie did you see? Did he pay for dinner? Did he kiss you goodbye? What’s he like just the two of you?”

[It’s unlikely character B remembers all that, thus the response seems awkward]

B: The date went really well and he’s a sweet guy. We saw Failure to Launch, which was a terrible movie, but we whispered jokes to each other throughout and that made it fun. Yes, he paid for dinner even though I offered to pay for half. He kissed me goodbye only on the cheek. He’s sweet and all, but there wasn’t any spark there.”

[What would really happen, based on number four]

A: “How did the date go? What movie did you see? Did he pay for dinner? Did he kiss you goodbye? What’s he like just the two of you?”

B: “Whoa. Slow down. Let me take my jacket off first.”


Better:

A: “I was wandering when you’d come home. So, how did it go?”

B: “He’s sweet, and we had a lot of fun. But there wasn’t any spark.”

A: “Too bad. But at least he paid for dinner, right?”

B: “And the movie.”

A: “What movie did you see?”

[Notice how in this example each character is responding to the last element in the sentence, not trying to fill in an respond to each part]


Dialogue can do great things, or it can hinder your work. Take the time to make sure your dialogue helps save time and energy. It shouldn't be just another element taking up the readers energy.