Humans communicate by talking each other, it’s something we do all the time to tell each other things. So when it comes to writing fiction it makes sense use character dialogue to help tell the story.
Here’s some of the ways you can get your dialogue to do more:
No one would dispute that dialogue helps a writer reveal their characters to the reader. Our speech patterns betray upbringing, personality and experience and it’s no different for our characters. But dialogue can do more than inform us about the nature of the character who is speaking. It is an excellent way to ‘round’ out other characters without resorting to narrative.
All you have to do is have character A talk about character B. Having a one character interpret another’s behaviour helps readers see that person from a viewpoint inside the story. It can be a good way to reveal character traits and motivations.
“Don’t let the widow’s lies force you out. That’s just what she wants,” Maria said. “She’s been after having your father’s smithy for years, even though she owns half the village already.”
“Then let her take it,” Slav said. “What do I want with it? I can barely get near a horse let alone shoe one. I’m not good with animals like you are.”
From this we learn the widow’s intentions towards Slav, and why she has them, and also that Maria is good with animals, while Slav is not.
Forwarding your plot using character dialogue, rather than narrative, can also bring the reader closer to the story. I call them sign posts, and they’re handy for underlining plot points.
“Would you let her win? After all she’s said about you?”
Slav sighed. He knew Maria spoke true. She always did.
“But what can I do?” he asked.
Maria stood in silence a while before she replied. “You need to find a way to prove her wrong. You didn’t kill her cow, but something did.”
Slav untangled his fingers from Maria’s. His head felt clearer.
“You’re right. That’s what I’ll do. Hunt down the beast that killed her cow and show she’s a liar.”
You could call it ‘stating the obvious’; having your characters clarify what is happening or what is going to happen, or even what is expected to happen although as the story unfolds it may not. But when a reader ‘listens’ to a character they’re more likely to digest the information than if the author hands them a flat paragraph of narrative.
Well written dialogue can sometimes be more visual than a paragraph of descriptive narrative. Someone who regularly used this method for description was Enid Blyton. If she wanted to describe the surroundings of her story she might use dialogue similar to this:
‘Dick,’ said his mother worriedly, as they came near to the Island, ‘Do be be careful of those nasty looking rocks, won’t you? They look so dangerous through the clear water and some of them aren’t far below the waves.’
The way Blyton uses dialogue may well have contributed to her being parodied. To an adult reader her character’s speech can seem stilted and forced. But Blyton wasn’t writing for adults and the fact that her work has endured means she was doing something right. She’s never shy of using her characters to tell her story.
The visual nature which dialogue seems to possess was also used by Enid Blyton when it came to action. She had a habit of describing the actions of her characters through their own dialogue. She have them say something along these lines:
They all got into the dingy. … ‘Everyone ready?’ cried George. ‘Got the oars, Julian? Dick, use the other pair.’ She shoved the dingy off and jumped in herself.
Dialogue makes it possible to say much with few words. We are freed from the clumsy choreography of describing to the reader who is doing what, where they are sitting, what they are holding. Instead, a few lines of dialogue has the reader envisage the children getting into the boat, picking up the oars and setting off.
If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au, iTunes and Kobo.