You Still Talkin’ To Me? (More Dialogue in Fiction)

Last Monday, I shared what dialogue in a story should accomplish and common problems with dialogue.  This week, I’ve gone through my class notes to compile a short list of what makes dialogue “great.”

  • Use metaphorical exaggeration (ex.: “mosquito bigger than my dog”)
  • Use lists for dramatic effect to show character frustration (ex.: “I changed my hairstyle, lost ten pounds, bought a new dress, and dropped half my paycheck at the Clinique counter, but he still doesn’t notice me.”)
  • Push-button dialogue that causes an emotional reaction (a famous example: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”)
  • Reversals (ex.: “I don’t think they’ll notice it’s missing.  Do you?”                “Yes.”    “I think you’re right.”)
  • Understatement (ex.: Noah looked down from the ark and said, “Looks like we got a little rain.”)
  • Yes/No alternatives (ex.: “Did you go to the party last night?”     “I never pass up free food.”)
image via Google Images

Of course, this is easier said than done.  An essential part of the dialogue rests in the narrative voice.  A suggestion provided in class to capture the voice of the author and character was to write fast.  This means write the story and resist the editing process until the story has been told.  Editing as you go can edit the voice right out of the story, making it just a bunch of words on the page that don’t make the reader feel the story.

For my previous post, I wrote a sample scene to illustrate dialogue problems.  Unfortunately, I cannot write a passage to display “great” dialogue.  I know my limitations 🙂

I still felt like this post needed something, so I chose a portion of what I thought was half-way decent dialogue near the end of Kharma’s Way (a serial story that I posted last year) to share:

“She had a purse?  And you remember what it looked like?  Women are strange,” Rodney said, shaking his head.

“I think you were distracted by other parts of her body.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I turned back to the mesquite tree and gasped.  “It’s gone!”

“What’s gone?”

“The coyote.  It was behind that mesquite tree.”  I pointed to the tree.  Where I observed the cluster of cacti before, mounds of lantana grew, spreading a leafy yellow carpet across the ground.

“I never saw a coyote,” Rodney said.

“I think I’m going crazy.”

“I didn’t want to be the one to tell you.”

“It’s not funny!”  The fear and frustration broke free like a flash flood in a dry creek bed – without warning and torrential.

Rodney patted my shoulder.  “I don’t know why the coyote is a big deal, but it’ll be okay.”

For a minute, maybe longer, my emotions flowed.  Then they tapered to a trickle, down my drenched face.  I didn’t have a tissue, so I stretched my T-shirt to erase the tears from my cheeks.

“You wouldn’t understand.  Sarena warned me I was going to die today.”

“That’s ridiculous.  How would she know?”

So, there you have it; everything I’ve got about writing dialogue.  Do you have any other tips for writing “GREAT” dialogue?  If so, please share!

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12 thoughts on “You Still Talkin’ To Me? (More Dialogue in Fiction)

  1. suzicate January 10, 2011 / 7:41 AM

    Great tips. Writing good dialogue takes practice and more practice.

    • jannatwrites January 10, 2011 / 8:15 PM

      Yes, Suzicate – practice is necessary to improve at anything…and dialogue (unfortunately) is no exception!

  2. Aligaeta January 10, 2011 / 7:54 AM

    Janna thanks again for these technique posts. You have me using dialogue in blogs. It’s nice to have voices other than my own. I find dialogue brings my stories to life.

    As for “coincidences” and/or “wonders” we experience in our lives, they are useful tools. As I blogged mine other’s may find use applying these “powers” and/or “beliefs” to their characters. As above you have Sarena’s prophesy and then the doubt of such shown in the dialogue of another character. Doesn’t that say a lot about the characters?

    • jannatwrites January 10, 2011 / 8:23 PM

      I’m glad the tips are of some use to you, Aligaeta! Using dialogue in a blog post is a nice break from narrative, if that’s the standard. Branching out is a good thing 🙂

      Kharma’s Way was an interesting story to write because it had Sarena, with Native American spirituality, Rodney, of Christian faith – and Jaime (aka Kharma) with little spiritual direction and a strong need for revenge. Of course, all of this wasn’t said straight out – I tried to communicate this through the dialogue and story line. It wasn’t a perfect story, but it gave me tons of practice – which makes it a great exercise.

  3. nrhatch January 10, 2011 / 8:02 AM

    Wonderful post, Janna. Love the examples you gave . . . and the excerpt from Kharma’s Way.

    My number one tip is reading the dialogue OUT LOUD, several times, to see if it SOUNDS believeable.

    • jannatwrites January 10, 2011 / 8:25 PM

      Thanks, Nancy. Reading out loud in an excellent suggestion. Great way to target ‘lame’ conversations or responses that seem too lengthy or burdened with information.

  4. Carol Ann Hoel January 10, 2011 / 10:30 AM

    Ah. So much to learn about dialogue, to excel in, to emerge triumphant… Great post.

    I became pleasantly distracted from your excellent post by your fascinating pets on the right sidebar. Great captions to go with them, too. Beautiful, sweet pets. Blessings to you, Janna…

    • jannatwrites January 10, 2011 / 8:29 PM

      Thanks, Carol. I guess writing is a lot like life – we never stop learning!

      I’m glad you enjoyed my pet pictures. I think we’re at capacity for four-legged children, so I make every attempt to stay away from sad animal stories in order to keep us from ending up with any more!

  5. Re Gypsy January 12, 2011 / 5:11 PM

    It’s good to listen to people talking when you’re out and about. If you have a journal handy you can also jot down what people say. Great post dear ;o)

    • jannatwrites January 12, 2011 / 6:16 PM

      Thank you, Re Gypsy. I do listen to conversations on occasion, but have trouble taking notes without being obvious. It does make for realistic dialogue though, especially if they’re talking about something interesting. Great suggestion – thanks!

  6. rohitmaiya January 17, 2011 / 5:40 AM

    Nice post again.

    I hope you don’t mind if I use some of your tips in my blog 🙂

    What do you do now a days? I know you worked in a Fast Food Restaurant a few years back. 🙂

    • jannatwrites January 17, 2011 / 10:11 AM

      You may use the tips, but a link reference to the source (my blog) is appreciated. Elimination of horrible dialogue is a worthy cause 😉

      My first office job was in insurance and I’ve been in the industry ever since. I’ve worked at three different companies but have done pretty much the same thing for the last twelve years.

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