Workshop 19: Do’s and Don’t’s of Dialogue
In her workshop, The Do’s and Don’ts of Dialogue, Jenny B. Jones (right) showed why she is a four-time Carol Award winner—and also an effective high-school teacher.
At the beginning of her session she immediately put the class to work. She gave a brief writing assignment that was then used throughout her presentation to illustrate the different ways dialogue is used to enhance a story. She also showed samples of dialogue from several novels that illustrated each point she made.
Dialogue must serve a purpose
It should accomplish at least one of the following:
- Move plot along
- Reveal something important about character
- Reveal something about setting
If none of these are achieved, then the dialogue should be removed or changed so that it does something for the story.
Inject some anger and a piece of dialogue can go from boring to bristling.
Dialogue is a wonderful tool for raising the tension in a scene—and therefore in the reader! This can be done by turning a conversation into an argument. Simply inject some anger and a piece of dialogue can go from boring to bristling. Avoiding the boring is a key point. “Scan for it,” Jones said. “Get rid of the small talk and the niceties.”
The class was instructed to “bring your dialogue on a date.” It’s helpful in Christian fiction to bring elements of romance in through the dialogue. Dialogue can be flirty, coy, shy—whatever helps build the tension in the romance.
Using tags (asked, whispered, exclaimed, etc.) is acceptable, but only in moderation. Said is the main tag to use in dialogue. It is mostly invisible to the reader. Inserting a beat—a bit of action—instead of a tag can also help the story.
Beats provide emotion or imagery … that immerse the reader in the story.
A line of dialogue followed by “he wiped the sweat from his forehead,” adds an element of description. Is the character hot? Nervous? Sick? Beats provide emotion or imagery around the dialogue that immerse the reader in the story.
Don’t buddy up with adverbs
A character shouldn’t say something “ominously” or “cheerfully.” Instead, use the dialogue to show those emotions. (Beats come in handy here!)
Jones explained that dialogue helps define the characters. “Give them different quirks and mannerisms,” she said. “That helps the reader separate them.” She warned the class to be careful with dialects, as they are difficult to put on the page effectively and can sometimes become a hindrance to the reader.
Pacing is important
Keep the dialogue to quick exchanges to keep the reader moving.
“Fast pacing means turning the pages fast,” Jones said. Keep the dialogue to quick exchanges to keep the reader moving. Leaving out a subject or verb, using interruptions and fragments—these are great ways to pick up the pace of the dialogue.
“Ultimately,” Jones said, “dialogue is all about rhythm.” To help discover and enhance that rhythm, she suggested reading your work aloud. Test whether the lines of dialogue are too long or the beats interrupt the flow. It’s also helpful to study dialogue by watching for it in TV shows (especially sitcoms) and movies.
As with all the elements of writing, it’s important to continue learning and growing in the use of dialogue. And this session provided that opportunity.