Bestselling author Kathy Carmichael is known for her award-winning romantic comedies and humorous mysteries. Her popular titles include Hot Flash, Diary of a Confessions Queen and her Texas Legacy Romantic Comedy series.
Kathy resides on Florida’s west coast, along with her Scottish husband, two not-so-wee-sons, and a bevy of cantankerous felines. Kathy’s romantic comedy, Hot Flash, was named as one of the top 10 Romance Fiction titles for 2009 by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine. Please visit her website http://www.KathyCarmichael.com.
HOW TO IMPROVE STORY DIALOGUE
No matter what genre or type of story, it’s important to use dialogue effectively. Good dialogue gives a sense of movement to the story and increases the pacing.
Dialogue serves to move your plot forward. Skilled use of dialogue increases conflict, exposes motivation and increases the story stakes. Narrative can’t develop character in the same way that dialogue can reveal your character’s essence.
Tips for Creating Dynamic Dialogue
1. Envision the scene. Pretend you’re the camera watching your characters in their setting.
2. Strive for no more than three pages of straight narrative. You need dialogue to keep the reader from tiring.
3. A character talking to herself or an animal doesn’t count as real dialogue. Dialogue is an interchange of either speech between two or more characters or a speech/physical reaction sequence.
4. Stand in front of a mirror. Pretend the image you see is your POV (point of view) character and that you are the camera. Read your manuscript aloud. What is your character doing? If she’s just standing there, then nothing is happening. If she’s talking, reacting to another character’s dialogue, you’ll see that. Those body/stage movements should be recorded in your manuscript along with the conversation.
5. Action sequences (moments of change) are “scene.” The character’s reaction to the action/change that occurred in the previous action scene is “sequel.” If it’s sequel rather than an action scene, you still don’t want your character static. To keep the pacing from bogging down, a useful device for sequels is have it occur during conversation scenes or interspersed within action scenes.
6. Long paragraphs of unbroken narrative are harder for the reader to read and can slow the pacing. Can you put some of it in dialogue?
7. Shorter sentence structure in the narrative can convey a sense of action or faster pacing. You won’t want to use this all the time, but it can really speed up a slow scene and increase the pacing of your dialogue.
8. Talk your scenes into a tape recorder. Listen to your dialogue on playback to see if it sounds natural and not stilted. Strive to make conversations have a natural ebb and flow.
9. Listen and watch the people around you. Restaurants are very good for this. Conversation is give and take. Often speakers are interrupted and sentences are incomplete or fragmented. There aren’t generally long pauses during these conversations, so, too, you shouldn’t have long pauses except for intentional ones during your dialogue/action scenes. Narrative (internal thought and description) creates pauses in the action.
10. Your job as a writer is to show the story rather than narrate it.
11. Ignore all of the above whenever story requires it. The story itself is of primary importance and trumps all rules or guidelines.
12. Buy a second copy of a beloved book and four different colors of high-lighter markers. Go through and highlight the dialogue with one color, description with another, internal thoughts with a third, and action/body movements/stage direction with the fourth. After doing this for a few chapters, you’ll get a feel for the balance between these elements. Then take a couple of chapters of your manuscript and do the same. You’ll then have a visual of where you’re off and what element you’re using instead of dialogue. Nine times out of ten, it’s because you’re not taking the time to fully develop each scene — instead you’re telling the scene in narrative.
13. Avoid summarizing action and dialogue. Show it.
Here’s an example of what you shouldn’t do:
As Mary took her seat in the crowded classroom, the teacher placed the notes on the overhead projector and began to read from them. He stopped for a moment and chastised her for being late again, then told her to stay after class. As he read some more, she bit her lip, worried that he’d find out she wasn’t really a student after all.
Here’s an example of what you might consider doing instead:
Mary entered the darkened classroom, fumbling for a chair. The teacher read from his notes on the overhead projector. Suddenly he stopped, then spun and glared at her.
“Late again, I see.”
“I’m sorry, Professor.” She ducked her head, hoping that in the dimly lit classroom he couldn’t see the blush rising on her face. She hated lying. She hated living a lie.
“Do you have an excuse?”
“No,” she rasped out. “Sorry.”
“You will see me after class.”
“And don’t be late again,” he warned, his voice imbued with that deadly tone known only to college professors used to having their commandments obeyed. He went back to reading his notes aloud.
She bit her lip. She simply had to keep her cover for a little longer. It was imperative that he not find out she wasn’t really a student.
14. An exercise: write a three page scene using nothing but dialogue. You only have the words to convey setting, who the characters are and their emotions. Because it’s pure dialogue, for the purpose of the exercise, it’s okay to venture into melodrama territory. Here’s a possible scenario: Man and woman seated in busy restaurant and woman’s goal is to dump the man.
Use the tips above to give your dialogue that zing of reality. It’ll make your characters spring to vivid life.