This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!
Originally published Oct. 6, 2011
I can’t write a story without dialogue. I mean, dialogue brings a story alive. But have you ever read a book where the dialogue scenes just dragged and bored?
I have. And nine times out of 10, I never finish the book.
So what makes dialogue drag, and what makes it sing? I’ve been writing a long time–professionally for six years, but 22 years if you count my first story at age 7. And I’ve never been able to find that magic piece of advice that makes my dialogue unforgettable.
Until the other day. And finally, it clicked.
Every sentence must REVEAL SOMETHING about your character.
Out of every “craft” tip and professional development paragraph I’ve ever read, this one sentence drills down to the heart of the matter. Your dialogue should never be day-to-day chatter. Every line spoken needs to have a purpose—to reveal something—about the character (and sometimes, even the plot). If it doesn’t, don’t write it.
This got me to stop and really contemplate every line. And let me tell you, since I began thinking in these terms, my dialogue writing jumped so deep, I might as well have leaped off the Grand Canyon.
OK, now I cannot take credit for this. I actually read it on another writer’s blog (or perhaps it was a literary agent). I forgot who they are, but this advice was so good, I just had to share it with my followers.
So what’s an example? Check out The Help
I pulled a short section from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I’m currently reading and cannot put down. I think Kathryn mastered this dialogue technique incredibly well.
Please note, I cut out some of the narration to emphasize the dialogue between Hilly and her friend, Elizabeth. The scene takes place in Jackson, Miss. in the early 1960s. Hilly discovers one of her friends, Skeeter, supports integration and becomes upset when she finds a booklet of the Jim Crow laws in Skeeter’s briefcase…
(Hilly speaking) “I’m not talking about pots. I am talking about the laws of this great state. Now, I want you to ask yourself, do you want Mae Mobley sitting next to a colored boy in English class? Do you want Nigra people living right here in this neighborhood? Touching your bottom when you pass on the street?”
(Hilly speaking) “William had a fit when he saw what she did to our house and I can’t soil my name hanging around her anymore, not with the election coming up. I’ve already asked Jeanie Caldwell to take Skeeter’s place in bridge club.”
(Elizabeth speaking) “You kicked her out of bridge club?”
(Hilly speaking) “I sure did. And I thought about kicking her out of the League, too.”
(Elizabeth speaking) “Can you even do that?”
(Hilly speaking) “Of course I can. But I’ve decided I want her to sit in that room and see what a fool she’s made of herself. She needs to learn that she can’t carry on this way. I mean, around us, it’s one thing. But around some other people, she’s going to get in big trouble.”
(Elizabeth speaking) “It’s true. There are some racists in this town.”
(Hilly speaking) “Oh, they’re out there.”
MY QUESTION TO YOU: What did you conclude about Hilly’s character from this dialogue scene? Do you see how Kathryn used the dialogue technique I described above? How else can YOU bring your characters to life, using dialogue?
Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!