Thoughts About DialogueIf characters are the heart of a story, dialogue is the lifeblood that serves the heart: we learn most of what we know about a character from their utterances, as well as from how they speak. While novelists can’t always afford to choose their words as carefully as, say, short story writers or poets, the wording of dialogue might be the exception. These are the words that define the people. More than that: they define the world. A line of dialogue can plunge us into a different world more effectively than any description.
There are a few principles I work from:
- Cliches come first. When we write dialogue, every movie and TV show we’ve ever watched is lurking on the sidelines. This is especially true during scenes that are more genre-specific, like love scenes or confrontations with villains; we’ve seen so many of these, heard so many key phrases again and again (“You’ll never get away with this!” “I already have.”), that it’s inevitable these phrases will spring to mind first. So while it’s okay to get the cliches out there for the sake of hitting word count and getting the ideas out, it’s just as important to go back and re-examine every line.* If it sounds eerily familiar, you’ve most likely heard it before.
- Does this sound like the character? Once the dialogue is out there, and it’s no longer cliché but belongs to you, does it also belong to this character? Does it suit their current mood? Someone who speaks in long, flowing lines of dialogue may be in a different emotional place from someone who speaks in short, hardbitten sentences. Or they may be more articulate and enjoy showing off. A character who is uneducated will sound different from an aristocrat. It may come down to things like word choice and cadence and take time to tease out; but the results are worth it.
- Sharpen it. This I learned from George R. R. Martin—he’s written that his experience as a screenwriter taught him to trim extra words from his dialogue as much as possible. Martin’s dialogue at its best is economical, without a wasted word, and the result is a dagger-like impact. We often use words we don’t need without even thinking about it. When we do this with dialogue, the effect is to to diminish the impact.
*In December! December is for editing. ;)
About the Author
Ilana C. Myer has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Her first novel, the epic fantasy Last Song Before Night, is available now from Tor/Macmillan. She lives in New York City.
On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression-from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar's connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, broken.
The Red Death's return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld-a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.
Last Song Before Night is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.