Let Me Dialogue With You

words

Human communication is mind-bendingly complicated stuff. How many times have your heard someone say, “It’s not what he said, but how he said it”? Or the age old “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice”?

Maybe the second one is less common.

Anyway, our communication goes well beyond the spoken words. You’ve got intonation, movement, history, touch, word choice, on and on and on. Anyone who tells you it’s what you say that’s most important is way off base. The verbal component of communication is actually just the tip of the iceberg.

Which leads us nicely to a potential problem: If communication is more than just the words, how do you handle the nonverbal aspects of communication in writing? For instance, take this line:

“I’ll always find you.”

The text alone is wide open to interpretation and it depends largely on the reader’s own past experiences (yes, a reader brings their own baggage into the book), their experience with the character, and the scene and story line you’ve set up. I pulled this line from from an image which shows us how important fonts are, but it’s also important to see how changes in the scene and the way the dialog is delivered can have a drastic impact on the way the line is perceived.

fonts-matter

Unless you’re hoping to write a novel with a ton of fonts – guaranteeing no one will ever read it – you’re going to have find a different way of eking that extra non-verbal aspect out of your dialog. The way to handle that is to rely on more than just the dialog. Set the scene, develop the characters, and take some time to explain the set up. Don’t get all pedantic with it, the reader doesn’t need to know every little bit that’s going through the speaker’s head at the moment, but they sometimes need to get a bit of context.

Now, the rules of writing dialog have been done to death. Truth be told, writing dialog isn’t hard: Listen to the way people talk and replicate that. Follow the rules of grammar, make it sound natural, all that jazz. But to make it all work and make the dialog compelling you have to – at least sometimes –  handle the nonverbal.cues.

Some of the nonverbal aspects of dialog – things like character development and history – are far too in-depth to handle in a blog post, but if you’re writing you’re probably already familiar with those things, so let’s focus on setting the scene. To illustrate how different word choices and scene-setting techniques work, we’ll be using the same quote for each scene. This is actually pretty similar to an exercise we used to in acting classes, but with writing. In that exercise, each actor is given a line and a feeling and told to deliver it. Two actors could be given two unrelated lines and told to interact using a feeling or something similar. This exercise basically the writing version of that.

Meloncholy:

He watched her from afar, as he always had and always would. She had her life and it was better without him in it. He’d saved her again and, just like always, she never even knew he was there. “I’ll always find you,” he whispered to her from the darkness.

Angry

“I think this will be the last time we meet,” he said. That smirk that made him a beau that won over many a young lady’s heart was plastered on his perfect face.

She tore at the cheap plastic belt that held her in place and glared as he casually walked off into the rain. It was a cheap trick, but it had worked, and he escaped her one more time. “I’ll always find you,” she snarled.

Happy

“How did you …,” she stammered.

His eyes sparkled gold and hazel in the mid-day sun. She drank him in, reveled in losing herself in him.. He held her close, stroked her hair, and said, “I’ll always find you.”

Scary

He pressed into the wall and wished he could magically pass through it. That nail he’d promised for months to pull out dug into his back. “How did you …,” he stammered.

Her eyes were as black as her soul. She didn’t care what happened when this was all over. Whatever it was, it would be worth it just to have been able to see the look on his face at this moment. She bared her teeth and her smile spoke of predation. “I’ll always find you,” she said.

Try it sometime. Take one or two phrases (technically it should be two since dialogue usually requires two people, but you get the idea), pick a feeling, and see if you can make it work.

None of this should imply that every line of dialogue needs this level of detail. There are certainly times when you want snappy repartee and, in truth, most of the times when we actually talk to each other there’s a lot of give and take. People talk over each other and interrupt each other all the time when they’re speaking. That’s not necessarily something you want to try to emulate in writing; it works about as well in print as it does in real life. Which is to say, not really at all.

Sometimes the dialogue needs to come fast and furious, but it’s also a good idea to back it off a bit sometimes and let the reader know what the voices in your head are thinking. Set the scene, let the characters be themselves, and let it rip.

Let’s mix the fast and furious with the deep POV and see what happens:

“Oh, Johnny… Where are you Johnny?” she asked.

Johnny stumbled backwards across the room, hands feeling behind him in a futile attempt to keep from tripping over the detritus of his misery. She was close. But there was no way she could be here, right? Not after the … incident.

“I just want you to meet my friend, Johnny,” she said.

“I already have friends,” Johnny said. “I don’t need any more.”

“But she so wants to meet you. She’s bright and shiny and I know you’ll both get along so well.”

“It was an accident.” Tears welled in his eyes remembering her broken body on the pavement. “I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t an accident, Johnny-boy. You loved your drink more than you loved me. But that’s okay, I found some new friends and they’re looking forward to meeting you.”

She came around the corner and he finally got his first look at her. Kelly, the woman he’d loved and lost to an accident that could have easily been prevented. She looked well, she looked normal. She looked like home. Whatever it was, it looked like her, but there was no way it could be her.

Johnny pressed into the wall and wished he could magically pass through it. That nail he’d promised for months to pull out dug into his back. “How did you …,” he stammered.

Her eyes were as black as her soul. She didn’t care what happened when this was all over. Whatever it was, it would be worth it just to have been able to see the look on his face at this moment. She bared her teeth and her smile spoke of predation. “I’ll always find you,” she said.

Sure, it’s a first draft, but hopefully it gives you some ideas.

So, what tricks do you use when you write dialogue?

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5 thoughts on “Let Me Dialogue With You

  1. I love this. One of my failings, as a writer (and I’m sure there are many), is that I tend to know what I was thinking when I wrote the paragraph and assumed the reader would instantl know the world I built in my head without giving it enough prose to back it up. This is a great exercise. My own thoughts, deep and dark as they are, pertain to physical gestures.

    One does not automatically think of killing someone as being a loving gesture, but murder can be if you put it in the right context. A serial killer murdering a hooker is not a loving gesture at all. However, a woman murdering her husband who has been under the control of a demon is a loving gesture if you make it clear that it’s release for him. Both are murder, but completely different. The act and method can be the same.

    But, have meandered off topic here. I always thought the phrase, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” has great potential. It can be ironic, sarcastic, happy, or sad.

    Oh, the Irony …

    John put his umbrella away, suddenly conscious its collected rainwater was leaving a puddle on the floor. Jane would be angry with the puddle, but not necessarily him. Outside the sudden downpour came to an immediate halt and three beams of light pierced the remaining clouds. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

    Lovely Sarcasm …

    Jane looked at John as he walked in the door. It had been raining all day, but looked like it might finally abate. She didn’t want to rush him. The man from the bank was safely tucked away in the living room with his coffee at the moment. Her husband deserved to be settled when he heard about the immediate foreclosure on their home of ten years.

    Her eyes trained to the floor where a small puddle of water had formed from his umbrella. Noticing her gaze, he looked immediately ashamed. “Oh, Jane, I’m so sorry about the puddle.”

    She shook her head at his unknwoingly absurd comment. The puddle was the least of their worrries. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

    Happy Days …

    Jane grabbed the towel from the floor at his feet. On top of having their house repossessed, her husband seemed to be in a hurry to make it a mess. She was pretty sure the puddle was no big deal, but today was the worst day she had ever lived through. Her world was falling apart.

    “By the way,” he said, “did the man from the bank call?”

    “Sweetie, he’s in the living room.”

    “Oh great, I need to talk with him.”

    “Honey,” Jane’s eyes welled up with tears. “He has papers. We are going to be out on the street. They are foreclosing.”

    He handed her an envelope with a single sheet of paper. “Read this sweetie.”

    She pulled out the paper and read it twice to be sure. John had done, it. He pulled it off. At the last moment he sealed the deal to ensure they would never have to worry about the house again.

    “Are you happy?”

    “You’ve got to be kidding me. Yes, yes I’m happy. I love you so much.”

    Sadly Stated …

    John ran to the house as fast as he could. He only hoped his efforts were enough. Jane was inside, potentially with a murderer. The evidence was compelling, but he hoped he was wrong. Throwing open the door he looked inside. Chairs lay on their sides, ingredients from some unbaked cookies were strewn out over the floor as if suddenly dropped. He knew what had happened.

    “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He couldn’t accept what had happened. His wife of ten years had been taken. On the table lay a note from his former friend and collegue. Is simply said, “I’ll alwasy find you.”

    First draft material to be sure, but it was fun. As always, thanks for the post! It was a fun little brain tickler for a Saturday morning.

    -Bryan the Writer

  2. Neat aritcle Eric. I tend to start with quite a lot of decoration around a new piece of dialogue, but by about the fifth draft I’ve reduced it to what one or the other character is doing, because the story should have done the explanatory part.
    This is a great memory jogger to put us back on track. 🙂

    1. That’s a good point, Tom. Too much background can make dialogue tedious to read. It’s always a good idea to pare it back to just the essentials.

  3. Very interesting article. Ihave read a lot of dialogue where the author has put something like “her words conveyed her fear” (just seen that one today). I find it really irritating, as I think that if her words are conveying fear, I should understand that from her words, without the writer hammering it home. I liked your little melancholy paragraph.

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