Between You And Me: How to Dialogue Effectively

How are you? That much-maligned conversational opening has evaporated this past year, along with all the pleasantries that human interaction used to bring. I may not be typical, but the most contact I’ve had with others revolves solely around the virtual arena of Zoom and like platforms. I’ve missed the give and take of personal interaction during the past year of isolation. Face to face in the real world allows me to interpret facial reactions, gestures, body posture, tone, wording. An emoji is not fluid or personal. A computer screen is limited in who is seen and how they are truly reacting. The loss of that uniquely human sharing leads me, inevitably, to consider the importance of dialogue in my writing. Readers create the characters in their heads as they go, so my job is to choose words that allow a reader to hear, see, touch, taste, and feel the subtle cues we give as we talk with and to each other. This is not a simple process.

The writer’s job is NOT to re-create actual speech. Humans use interjections, interruptions, pauses, grunts, and curses to convey meaning. Many of these liven up real discourse but slow down written dialogue. I admit to studying masters of dialogue to learn, to model my own writing, and to imbue the words my characters speak with meaning. Dialogue should convey information, subtly or overtly. It should advance the action in a scene as well as the overall plot. Regardless of your opinion about Ernest Hemingway, he has much to teach about using dialogue in his short stories. Yes, the topics he wrote about and the language he used can be controversial, but the skill with which he invests lines with meaning is unparalleled. I recommend “Hills Like White Elephants” as an example of a story told mainly through a conversation between a man and a woman waiting for a train. (We can also learn about metaphor and symbolism in this story, but that’s fodder for another post!)

I’ve used whimsical writing prompts to encourage creativity in using dialogue. Not only is it fun to imagine a dialogue between you and your shadow, but the activity forces you to think about what can be conveyed simply by having your characters talk. No description, narration, or dialogue tags allowed. Or try creating a discussion between two inanimate objects. You may not reveal what they are. The dialogue must provide that information.If you try this, send it along. I’d love to see what you write.

I work hard to make my characters distinctive in their speech and have the conversations supply the reader with the characters’ personality, motivation, and action. The challenge is substantial, the reward immense and satisfying.

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