A story needs to do more than narrate. A story needs to invite the reader inside its fictional world, provoke and titillate. One of the best ways to do this is through dialogue. By allowing your characters freedom to speak to each other, you offer readers the opportunity to get to know them more intimately (without YOUR butting in).
However, dialogue is more than that. It is an opportunity to work with your plot in a new direction. When I am stuck for how to show the reader what's happening, I often employ my characters. Why not let them tell all?
Here is what you need to know about writing dialogue in your fiction. The sample lines are taken from my YA coming out tale, "Birds on a Wire".
Dialogue should do one of three things:
1. Move your plot forward; foreshadow.
"Seen Ruby?" Jesse asks.
"Yeah, she was talking to Karen when I came back to the table. She mentioned something about letting Karen copy her English notes. I think Nate gave them a ride to the library." Matt picks at the cracked table. "She said to tell you to call her."
"You saw her get in his car?" Jesse can't even say Nate's name. The fury surges inside him. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Pretty sure." Matt looks over at the empty lot, trying to evoke an imaginary replay. "Yeah. Positive. You worried? About that big lug? Don't waste your time, Jess. He's a jerk. Too dumb for Ruby. She's just taking advantage of his wheels. Karen's her best friend. He's her brother. It's just convenience."
Jesse stands, shoves his thin fingers inside his jean pockets. "Damn, OK. Don't know why I worry. He's just so damn cocky. That Karen, she gets on my nerves, too."
2. Create tension, suspense, mystery (mood).
"Something's wrong, Daddy. Something's wrong with Matt or Jesse, or ... something's not right." She looks out the window.
The door opens, and Jesse races down the hall. A door slams.
"Seems the boys got some trouble." Harold Waters says. "Suppose it's my turn now."
The reluctant father walks down the hallway. "Jesse," he says through the closed door. "Jess? Son?" Nothing. "I'm comin' in." He pauses, opens the door.
3. Identifies your characters (their inner selves - thoughts, ideas, fears, hopes)
"Did you think you and Ruby were gonna be like forever?" Miguel asks.
"Huh? Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. What difference does it make now anyway?" Jesse takes another swig.
"Yeah, none, I guess. But, uh, ya know she's not the most faithful, man. She's, uh, she likes to flirt, ya know?"
"Yeah, I know, but I don't think she ever gave it all up to anyone else." Jesse turns his head toward the crowd. "I mean, it's not like she was screwin' that lughead while she was with me, man."
"Nah, but I bet she is now."
"What the-?! You on my side, or what, dude?"
"I'm on your side, man. Relax. I'm just sayin'. That's all."
One more thing. When you sit down to write, remember this about formatting:
1. Start a new paragraph when a new person speaks.
2. Use double quotes before and after the speaking.
3. Place punctuation inside the quotes. (“That looks great!”)
4. End dialogue with a comma when using a SAYS tag. (“I’ll be there soon,” Jenny says.)
5. Use SAYS whenever possible.
6. If you are doing it right, at some point, you won’t need to identify who’s speaking all the time because the reader will recognize the character’s voice.
7. Avoid using words for SAYS that don’t mean SAYS.
No: “I can’t wait to see you,” she smiles. (Do we smile things??)
Yes: “I can’t wait to see you,” she says then looks at me and smiles.
If you troll the Internet, or pick through books on writing, you will see these ideas. They are universal. As you grow as a writer, you will discover that what works for you, works for many. Writing is an art. It's also a skill. There are rules, but we know rules can be broken. These are guidelines.
What works for you? Share here.
(I'll have more on dialogue in the weeks to come.)