As I sat down to write this article, I found instead of coming up with an explanation of what dynamic dialogue was, I continually thought about what dynamic dialogue wasn’t. 🙂 So forgive me if I start this article a bit backward.
So, what isn’t dynamic dialogue?
- interrogatory (not a Q&A session)
- over-the-top (especially when showing accent or a character’s voice)
- perfect (grammatically)
Dynamic dialogue is:
- grammatically incorrect
- varied in tone, voice, and length
- emotionally provoking
- rude (characters’ action toward and discourse with one another)
Dynamic dialogue is raucous and loud. In short, it has personality—just like your characters. And what’s more, discourse tends to be just as much about what is said as what is not said. So don’t have characters speak without showing in some way. Perhaps their words are telling (in the showing sense), perhaps it’s their expression, or their tone or their inner thoughts or their actions. Or better yet, perhaps it’s what a character leaves out of their dialogue that is most showing of all.
“Wanna go to the game?” Billy asked with a hearty slap to his friend’s shoulder.
Silas didn’t acknowledge his friend. Instead he stared off, distracted, something dreary and turbulent like churning in his eyes like the frothy waves crashing upon the distant shoreline.
“It’s the Seahawks, man! The Seahawks!” Billy threw his arm around Silas and pulled him into a headlock that was half a demand for attention and half friendly commiseration. “Can you believe I won those tickets? And here you thought I wasn’t nothing but a unlucky SOB.” He shoved the tickets in Silas’s face, all the while holding him hostage and laughing. “Look, bro, look!”
Silas drove his elbow into Billy’s midsection and shoved him away. “What the—dude, what’s your damage? Back up off me, man!”
With one hand holding his aching stomach and the other outstretched, Billy shouted, “Whoa! Sub-zero yourself, Sil! WTF?”
“I’m chill. What?”
“Tickets. Jesus! Haven’t heard a word I said?”
Silas grumbled something under his breath and then he trudged toward the beach, hands in pockets, head down.
“Whatever, punk,” he murmured before shouting at his friend, “Your loss! You gonna miss a hell of a game!” Billy shook his head. What a loser.
What does this tell you about the characters, their ages, and their personalities? Dialogue is powerful and it is dynamic when a conversation is much, much more than just a conversation. This dialogue not only gives insight into the characters and the plot, but it’s intriguing. What’s bothering Silas? Does Silas hate football? Are he and Billy not true friends? Does Billy not notice that his friend is upset, does he not care, or is he too excited to be a good friend in that moment?
There are certain elements that will exsanguinate the pep out of dialogue faster than a vampire can slurp down O neg, and they are:
- showing the whole conversation
- overusing dialogue tags
- lack of creative narrative (especially if creative dialogue tags are replacing the creative narrative)
- mundane greetings & goodbyes
- rehashes of information the characters already know (whether the reader knows it or not)
- characters repeating one another
- characters speaking with the same voice
- an info-dump
- boring conversation
- discourse that sounds inappropriate given the gender of the character, the educational level of the character, the age of the character, etc.
- discourse in which characters constantly call one another by name
- difficult to read discourse that is full of phonetic spellings meant to imitate an accent
Don’t do these things!
There are some habits that you will need to cultivate if you want to make your dialogue more dynamic, and they begin before you ever put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Brace yourself, this requires human interaction.
Interact–Get out of your office and talk to people. These people can be your family, your friends or even a stranger on an elevator. Every conversation you enter into is an opportunity to experience those things your characters will experience. And when you write from experience, the words and scenarios feel true. So, did you bomb a conversation with a guy at a bar? It’s fodder for your next novel. Did you feel awkward talking to your new neighbor? You guessed it, turn that awkwardness into a funny scene in your manuscript.
Observe–Go out in public and people watch. It’s fun. And you can people watch anywhere. The grocery store is fair game, so is your son’s soccer game or your daughter’s archery competition. Restaurants and cafes are wonderful places to people watch. So tune out the TV playing the game above the bar and watch how people interact. Play a game in which you try to guess how long people have been married based on the amount of conversation they have with one another.
The second part of observation is that you really should take notice of body language. Yes, I know, I am always harping on body language, but that’s because it’s important. The vast majority of language is unspoken and your dialogue cannot be dynamic without it. This observation also keeps you from getting into the laughing, sighing, and gazing rut that is so common to dialogue. How do people react when angry, happy, sad, disgusted but trying to hide it, when they are pretending, or hiding their attraction? You can and should use all of this in your book.
Record—Get a notebook and carry it with you wherever you go. I’m serious. You never know when you’ll hear a bit of conversation you’d like to alter and put in a book or when you’d like to record a bit of body language that you observed or jot down a story idea. An author prepared is an author who is going to write something dynamic.
Now, back to writing! 🙂