Dialogue is important in two ways:
1. Establishing character.
2. Delivering powerful information.
Characterization Through Dialogue
So I started poring through my blog and forum entries, and I found something interesting. I start most sentences with "Dude" "So" or "Okay". That's my voice. If I were to write myself as a character, I could easily establish my voice—and my character—with those three words. Especially through dialogue.
What your characters say can reveal a lot about them. Here's an example from one of my WiP's.
Vi has been arrested for the eighth time (in a dystopian society) for walking with her friend, Zenn. She and another prisoner (Jag) are standing before a council of 13 Greenies. Oh, and she abhors her full first name.
“Miss Schoenfeld,” the middle Greenie said. “Do you have anything to say?”This shows her character in spades. It shows the reader who she is, and that she’ll say just about anything.
I looked at Mech-749. Did I have anything to say? What kind of lame-ass question is that?
“I was just walking in the park with a friend,” I said.
“A boy,” a woman said, leaning forward.
“I guess.” I looked at her. “I’ve never really noticed Zenn was a boy before.”
Jag gave a low laugh, but no one shushed him.
“This is the, uh…seventh time you’ve been apprehended,” the middle Greenie said, glancing at his p-screen.
I counted quickly in my mind. Eighth, actually, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. One of them happened before I turned twelve and wouldn’t be on the Official Record. Not sure if I was supposed to speak or not, I opted for not.
“Violet, you are aware that many on this council find you unrehabilitatable.”
“That’s a long word,” I said.
Dialogue can do wonders for your character if you follow these rules:
1. Be consistent. If your character freezes up with girls, they have to always freeze up with girls. Unless they've gone through a character-morph in the book and then they can talk to the girl near the end. Catch phrases should be used to identify the speaker without a dialogue tag.
2. Be authentic. Your characters have to be themselves. Don't let them say things they would never say just because you want to convey information.
3. Be unique. Don’t have every single character saying, "Dude". That's not unique, it's just annoying.
Here's another example. This is from Lisa and Laura's manuscript FINDING GRACE, which I practically begged to read. And it was wonderful.
Kate has a date to Homecoming with two boys, Seth and Liam. She's sorta crushing on Liam, and Seth is her geeky neighbor who's had a thing for her for a while. She's dressed up real nice.
“You look…” Seth began but appeared to be at a loss for words.I love Liam’s line. It is the line I'm still thinking about, weeks later. It's the only line I can retype without having to re-read the manuscript. It's brilliant. Even though the characters of both Seth and Liam have been well-established by this time, it still shows who they are. Seth can't find the words, but Liam knows exactly what to say. How to say it. Cuz he's just that bad. Brill-liant.
“Hot. I think the word you’re looking for is hot,” Liam finished for him.
Of course, you have to KNOW your characters to know how they speak, what they would and wouldn't say in any situation, and how to deliver what you want them to say with power.
Here’s another example from Cole Gibsen’s novel, KATANA.
This is a conversation between Rileigh and her mom, who she calls Debbie. (That gives you insight into their relationship right there.)
“I never went to get my phone,” she answered. “I thought it would be better if I got a weapon.”Um, yeah, I don’t either, Debbie. Ha ha! But this shows not only how Rileigh views her mother, but loads of character from Debbie. It’s great.
I smacked my hand against my forehead. “Haven’t you ever watched a horror movie? Don’t you know what happens to the people who run to the kitchen for a knife instead of calling the police?”
Debbie rolled her eyes. “This is life, Rileigh, not a movie.” She leaned into Dr. Wendell and whispered, “She’s always been a little dramatic. I have no idea where she gets it.”
Delivering Powerful Information
I want the one line everyone will remember from my book to be something someone says. There is that much power in the spoken word.
So I was watching Aaron Stone last week with my son (yes, I watch the teen Disney channel shows. It's called research. *snarf*) and the guy in it has just spent the afternoon with this girl he's crushing on. I mean, it's Chase Ravenwood. *swoon* She drops a comic book out of her locker, which Aaron thinks is, well, this is what he says.
Aaron: This is great! You're so great!
Chase takes the comic book and turns back to her locker without answering.
Aaron turns away, rubs his hand through his hair, muttering: Did you just say that out loud?
That's when it hit me. What people say out loud is powerful. Ah, the power of the spoken word. Mwa, ha, ha! See what you can glean from the Disney Channel?
Here's an example from another of my WiP's. In this one, Jesse is "discussing" something with his ex-trainer, Cal.
"What happened to you?" Jesse finally asks.Hmm…that's powerful. And Cal doesn't even have to come out and say that he did, in fact, NOT choose early retirement.
Cal's concerned gaze turns cold. "Early retirement."
"You chose that."
This example from Kate Karyus Quinn, shows characterization as well as advances an important plot element. Dialogue can be used to do both.
The main character, Stella, is calling her mom to come pick her up from work, after having just been fired from her telemarketing job for yelling at a customer.
There was a long silence. So long that Stella checked her phone to see if the call had been dropped. No such luck.I loved the line that says, “Well, they said, ‘you’re fired.’” What a great characterization line for Stella. And her mother’s last line is fantastic. Because getting fired is completely different than quitting. And I’m pretty sure that this firing is going to lead me somewhere exciting…
“You were fired? Are you sure? What exactly did they say to you, Stella?”
“Well, they said, ‘you’re fired.’”
“Oh no, Stella. I really doubt that. Nobody actually says ‘you’re fired’. Maybe it was a joke? Are they jokers over there? Maybe you should go talk to them, and while you’re at it, if you think to mention putting Barbara on one of them, what do you call them? Do not call lists? Oh, but make sure she still gets calls for surveys – especially political ones. Barbara just loves being polled, you know.”
“MOM!” The word exploded from Stella, in the same way her head felt like it was about to explode. “I am one hundred percent certain that I was fired. And why do you want me to talk to them anyway? You’ve wanted me to quit this job from the day I started.”
“Quit, yes. But, Stella, my God, getting fired is a completely different thing.”
So, hit me with your best shot. Where's your best dialogue? Does it show characterization? Is it consistent with what the character says and does throughout the novel? Does it convey an important plot element? If not, you might want to reconsider why your character decided to open their mouth at all.
Post your pithy dialogue in the comments. Let's see what you've gotten your characters to spill!