Can we talk about dialog?

Last night at the Bucks County Romance Writers monthly meeting, guest speaker Kathryn Craft gave an interesting chat about dialog, covering formatting, punctuation, and the many things that dialog should and shouldn’t do.

And this got me thinking about the best advice I’ve ever gotten about writing dialog: Think of it as power shifts. A push and pull between characters.  I don’t remember who told me this, and I really wish I did so I could thank them.  When dialog between characters is a push and pull, you know you’ve got tension going on and plotting advancing, and your characters expressing their points of view.  It’s everything that good dialog should do.

Here’s an example of this push and pull between characters in a scene from my most current manuscript DRAWN. The book’s about a teen artist from NJ who moves to England in search of “normal,” only to find herself channeling one very hot ghost.  Of course, my character doesn’t realize at first what is going on. In this scene from near the beginning of my novel, Michelle’s sketching at the castle when some guy dressed in a cape appears yet again:

“Who sent you?” he says.

“Nobody,” I say, all too aware of the dagger he holds against me.

“Anyone who threatens the Earl is my own sworn enemy.” He nods toward my messenger bag. “Show me it.”

I hand it to him.

Keeping his lime-green eyes on me, he dumps the contents of my bag onto the ground. “What weapon is this?” He holds up my sharpener.

I narrow my eyes at him, stick my pencil into the sharpener, and turn it a few times. Pull it out and blow on the tip.

He squints at me. “What of this?”

I take my Chapstick from his fingers, pop off the top, and coat my lips. “Really dangerous,” I say.

“This?” He holds up a tampon.

“God, enough.” I push away the point of his dagger. I snatch the tampon from his hand, pick up my bag, and start putting my things back into it. “You’re nuts, you know that? Or I am. One of us is, that’s for sure.”

He looks amused and stows his dagger in the side of his boot. “You lay in wait, yet are unarmed. What manner of assassin are you?”

“Assassin? You’ve got problems. I get it. Boy, do I ever get it.” I scoop up my coins, nubs of pencils, and a pack of Conte crayons, along with the countless other little items I always tote around, like tissues, hair ties and, because I once sliced open my finger cutting a linoleum block for a print, a tiny first aid kit. Thinking about this, I automatically rub the small white scar on my left thumb. “Try taking your meds,” I tell him, stuffing my things back into my bag. “Try not wearing that cape and boots all the time. While you’re at it, why don’t you try taking up a hobby, like going to Star Wars conventions as a Jedi knight?” I hang the bag over my shoulder, and grab my drawing pad. “I’m leaving right now, and if you follow me, I swear to God I’ll scream and you’ll be in prison faster than you can say Society of Creative Anachronism. Got that?”

In her talk, Kathryn also highlighted that your dialog should always be multi-tasking. If it isn’t, you’re doing something wrong.  So, if you follow this, along with the power shifting rule of thumb, you will never have characters doing idle chitchat, like,

“So, how’s that new exercise regime working out for you?”

“Not bad. Enjoying the great outdoors.”

Unless it is tied into tension building. Like, say, your characters are teetering over the edge of a cliff, and trying to muster their courage.  Example:

“So, how’s that new exercise regime working out for you?” Brett asks, his foot sliding, sending a shower of stones down the steep cliff’s edge.

“Not bad,” Jessie says, his powerful hands clutching the sapling’s branch. “Enjoying the great outdoors.”

Yup, you want to avoid all boring stuff.  Cut anywhere that a character is recapping what has already been said in your story.  Just say: Jessica told Rachel everything. And consider it done.  And don’t have your character state the obvious.  Like if we’ve just seen her be shot, don’t have her then say, “I’ve been shot. I’m bleeding.”

You’d be surprised how many of us make this mistake over and over again. At least in drafts.

One final thought about dialog: each character needs its own voice.  Remember those people who told you stories about what he said, she said? And how they would mimic each person’s speech pattern and mannerisms to make that story come to life in the telling? Yeah, I know. It was a bit annoying, but effective as well.  I think of dialog in those terms.  I’m telling the reader what happened, and making sure that they know who is doing the talking and how the speaker moved and felt in the telling.  It all comes through in the speech patterns, word choices, gestures.  And hopefully, if you do this all correctly, it feels real.

That’s all I can say.