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Improving Dialogue

by William H. Coles

Contemporary writers fail to make the most effective use of dialogue, which for many writing genre and memoir–and first-person-fiction authors–probably doesn’t impact their career goals. But for the serious literary writer building characters that are integral in plot development and provide theme and meaning to a work of well crafted fiction, the search for new ways of thinking about and creating effective dialogue are crucial to great characters and great writing.

A good fictional character is built by a combination of story actions and, usually to a lesser extent, descriptive narrative. Technically, dialogue can be the most useful way a character expresses emotions, emotions that often give special impact to a reader because the character is often unaware of what they are revealing . . . the pulse of dramatic irony working. In dialogue sections, there are a number of thoughts and skills an author can use to create consistent characters with plausible emotions said in realistic, yet often and necessarily surprising, ways. Here are a few guidelines.

1) No exposition. In some writing, skillful exposition is possible and necessary. But when building characters who will engage the reader and evoke sympathy, exposition through dialogue pushes the reader away, reminds the reader that the character is only a tool of the writer to tell a story, rather than a unique fictional individual worthy of caring and involvement.

2) No author presence. In fictional dialogue the character is speaking for him or herself. The character is not a marionette for the writer. Nothing that tints of an author’s idea or presence can be permitted for excellence. (The writer can effectively use narrator as storyteller and incorporate ideas there.) Writers must honor the character they build and not use the character’s personality for their own needs and aggrandizement. Let the dialogue build him or her. In genre and memoir, the author writes characters often using their own (the author’s) ideation, experiences, and syntax. The result is a sliding scale of author/character speaking that weakens character credibility and development.

3) Don’t insert character-antithetical cleverness. Few if any jokes and never clever sayings in any character that isn’t Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde work in serious fiction. These are almost always writers seeking admiration for their wit. Let humor come from the inherent thinking between the characters, and irony in the plot. Irony, sarcasm, metaphoric-layered contrast are the humor tools for the writer of serious fiction. Slapstick can detract from credibility and erode dramatic momentum necessary for good prose.

4) Make dialogue believable. Absolute adherence to character saying what the readers think they would say if perceiving themselves as the character is essential. A writer must know and target the reader. This builds trust and binding with character that results in memorability and uniqueness.

5) Let characters react to other characters. Sophisticated, seamless description of characters reacting to other characters, or reaction through the dialogue, strengthens the emotional, often subliminal, impact on the reader. Rather than describing a character’s emotion, let another character see it and react.

6) Consider dialogue among characters a valuable source for answering questions in the minds of the reader about plot, characters, or what story is about. It advances the story and integrates character into story momentum.

7) No soliloquies (honor the character). Few characters will be created so the expounding, or even the hint of expounding, on extraneous topics is not credible or useful for character development.

8) Gage dialogue to character intelligence (not some other standard). Don’t make the dialogue smarter or dumber than the character that has been created.

Character-based fiction is a gift by a fiction author to the characters created. Let the characters be themselves and never let them default as tools for the author to tell his or her story. Well-fashioned characters begin to grow, embed themselves in a reader’s memory, and evoke emotions in ways no other prose–or visual or auditory storytelling–is capable of. To master effective dialogue is not an easy process and not attainable by all, but to try is well worth the effort. And most importantly, it is one the major essences for the writing of good fiction.

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