ENGAGING DIALOGUE VS. “HE SAID/”SHE SAID”
I hope this helps someone who may be struggling with dialogue issues.
One of the things I enjoy hearing the most from my readers is how much they love my snappy dialogue and the conversations between my characters or how it engages them and pulls them into the scene. To them I say “Thank you”, and I will continue to try to keep it as engaging as possible. I want to share with my fellow writers the method I use to create my dialogue.
I do read a lot of stories and books by the pulp writers of yesteryear and I am heavily influenced by their style of dialogue. However, it took an epiphany in the park one sunny day to make me understand what it would take to create some realism in my own written conversations. Dialogue can truly make or break a scene; it can either suck the reader into your story or make them want to put the book down and go do something else.
In my younger years as a writer, I did everything to try to figure out what I could do to improve the verbal exchanges between my characters. I bought books on dialogue, watched movies for inspiration… nothing seemed to hit me the right way.
And, then, one day in 2003, I was sitting in the park watching my son play with other kids, and it hit me right in the face! It was so friggin obvious and I couldn’t believe I had wasted so much time and effort trying to figure it out.
What is dialogue? To create it to its full potential, you have to understand what it is. Here’s the Oxford Dictionary definition: Dialogue (noun) - a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or film.
Okay, so we know it means people are using words to communicate. But it isn’t just about the words because, what I learned from sitting in the park that day, writing believable and realistic dialogue is also about action.
“Dialogue” actually has two uses: as a noun and a verb. The Oxford Dictionary continues the definition with - (verb) take part in a conversation or discussion to resolve a problem. Did you notice the two key words there? TAKE PART. To “take part” in something means to to be actively involved in something with other people. So, it could be said that, in the case of creating engaging dialogue, the actions speak just as loud as the words.
While watching my son in the park that day, he didn’t just stand and talk. He was active. He ran around and chatted with the other kids and parents. He slid down the slide while laughing and yelling at the top of his lungs. He swayed to and fro on the swing while talking it up with the little boy in the swing next to him. He drove his hands through the sand while barking orders to the other boy while they built a castle. His entire conversation was filled with action as well as words.
Scratching your chin. Rubbing your neck. Sipping coffee. Putting away dishes. Turning the steering wheel. Tapping your foot. Opening a jar of pickles. These are all actions we’re liable to do while speaking to someone.
“HE SAID”/”SHE SAID” CAN KILL A CONVERSATION
“I need to go to the store,” John said.
“Okay,” Sue replied. “I’ll go with you.”
“I could be a while,” he told her.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured. “I’ve got time to kill.”
BO-RING! Seriously. What the hell’s going on between these two people in this scene? (I mean aside from the words they’re speaking.) Even if there’s action written before and after this dialogue, the exchange makes it feel as though they’re just standing and staring at each other waiting for their turn to speak. It’s so bland.
Have you ever really sat and watched two people talk? Do they always just sit and wait to speak as if waiting for their cues? No. So why would you write it that way?
Kick the “He said”/”She said” crap to the curb and insert some action! Bring the conversation to life.
“I need to go to the store,” John finished jotting down the last item on his list.
“Okay,” Sue opened the closet door. “I’ll go with you.”
He held up his lengthy inventory sheet. “I could be a while.”
“Don’t worry,” she grabbed her jacket and purse from the closet. “I’ve got time to kill.”
Now that’s a scene I can visualize. If I were to direct these two characters on screen, that’s how I’d do it. Plus, I added about 34 words to my word count just by showing a little action between the dialogue versus the original 9 in the previous stale example.
And use a thesaurus. It is one of your best friends. Try not to use the same word over and over in your action. I quickly Googled synonyms for the word “list”, and “inventory” was among them. Sounded good to me.
If you’re going for snappy dialogue, change up the order of action and dialogue and don’t invite “He said”/”She said” to the party:
Sue opened the closet door as John finished jotting down the last item on his lengthy shopping list.
“I need to go to the store”
“Okay, I’ll go with you,” she took her jacket from the closet.
“I could be a while.”
“Don’t worry,” she zipped up. “I’ve got time to kill.”
John watched as Sue grabbed her purse and headed out the door.
Including action into the midst of your dialogue gives your conversation some depth and makes your characters seem more colorful and quirky. It also gives your readers something to visualize. The scene almost becomes cinematic in the imagination.
THE WORLD OF CONVERSATION
Okay, so here we go… There are two methods I use when searching for ways to create engaging dialogue and they actually happen at the same time: Listening and Observing.
Inspired by my awakening at the park, I began to sit in crowded areas and just listen for conversations. As a writer, this is an important practice to get into. Go to the mall or the park or a nursing home or bus station or where ever there are people… these are your models of the modern conversation.
By “listen” I don’t mean eavesdrop, I mean really listen and hear and learn the way people communicate. Are they choppy with their words or do they spew lengthy monologues? Are they quiet or do they seem to dominate the conversation? Does one speak with a lisp? Does one stutter or stammer? Does one swear a lot? Is she a soprano? Is he a baritone? Is she nasal and annoying? Is he gruff and pushy? Is there any whining? Or is there confidence in the speech? Is the word “like” a major part of their vocabulary (this one really annoys me)?
This is where the “action” comes into play. So, you’re sitting and observing your “models”. While they talk to one another: Is anyone eating a slice of pizza? Is anyone scratching their arm? Is someone picking at a hangnail? Tying a shoe? Struggling to carry bags? Brushing their hair? Sneezing? Texting? Zipping a jacket? Picking up a penny? Rubbing their eyes? Holding a baby? Putting something in their pocket? Pushing another on a swing? Kicking rocks? Opening a door? Fiddling with keys? Wiping a window? Pouring a drink? What actions are they engaged in while they’re talking?
This is the world of conversation. Make notes if you have to. Sit and really drink it all in. Take a fellow writer with you and observe together. You’re a writer and research is part of your job if you’re going to create something memorable that will keep your readers coming back to you for more.