I have finally returned to working on a WIP (novella #2 in my series) and one thing that struck me as I puzzle my way through a dinner date between two characters is how important conversations are. My novella series is a fascinating challenge for me because unlike my novel, it’s a romance, which means that the “action” doesn’t come from kicking ass and taking names. Instead, the conflicts are largely interpersonal and stem from an emotional place. The characters in my novellas don’t fight it out; they talk it out.
What’s the goal of this conversation?
This is a question I ask myself while writing every scene. What is the goal of this conversation, and how do my characters fulfill that goal? In real life, people talk about nothing simply to pass the time. In fiction, that’s a huge no no. Every piece of dialogue–every word, for that matter–has to be there for a very specific reason. Here are a few:
*To establish character–Dialogue reveals the personality of your character. Is she funny? Is he arrogant? Is she a hard ass? Is he insecure? The answers to these questions are revealed in the way people talk. Dialogue can also establish where a person is from or how much education he or she has, and it should give each character a very specific voice. For example, in my first novella, the character of Tanya is demonstrated in how she talks: “Jamal!” Tanya snapped her fingers. “That’s right. He had the nerve to drive you around Chicago in that sputtering piece of shit. I’m surprised that hubcaps and mufflers and shit didn’t start falling off of it when he got up to 45 on the Drive. And really, I’m not one to be all up in your business, but if a man drives a car like that, can he really kick it into high gear in the sheets?”
*To set up tension–Since my novella series is erotic romance, I’m having A LOT of fun using dialogue to spark sexual tension. People flirt with their bodies as well as with their words. Sometimes the verbal tête-à-tête can be just as sexy as doing the actual deed. As my male escort, Brian, says, “Ah, but the conversation is half the fun, isn’t it? A meeting of the minds before a meeting of the bodies?”
*To reveal what is *not* being said–I know that this one sounds weird, but it relates to an acting exercise that I find to be very helpful. In the exercise, you write down the line that you are saying, and next to it, you write down what you *really* mean. Interesting dialogue has multiple layers. In one scene in my novel, one character is trying to get information from another:
“So what happened to Tully?”
Mario shrugged. “He retired.”
If this were an acting exercise, my notes would read, “I don’t actually know where Tully is. He’s most likely dead, but I’m not telling you that because I don’t trust you, and I think that you might have had something to do with his disappearance.”
*To foreshadow future events, to paint the scene, to reveal past information–You have to be a bit careful with this one because you don’t want your dialogue to turn into an infodump (“As you know, Tom, last year, the aliens crashed in the middle of the desert . . .”), but sometimes dialogue can be the best way to clue your reader into the larger world of the novel. For example, I didn’t want to come out and say “Susan works in an office. Kathryn is a professor.” So I came up with following quick exchange:
“Going to that evil bastion of capitalist money-making where they keep your paycheck?”
Susan laughed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you know it. And I take it that you’re headed to that glorious ivory tower where they pay you in peanuts and library books?”
Kathryn chuckled. “Bingo.”
I hope that these tips are helpful. I know that when I get stuck in a scene (and I’m stuck now, which is why I decided to write this post!) I have to keep asking myself, “What is the point of this conversation?” Once I figure that out, I find writing the dialogue to be a little easier.