You've just bumped into a former client at the airport. After exchanging pleasantries, he asks you what your new company does. You open your mouth, and then pause. Where on earth do you start?
As craft, dialogue serves several functions in any scene. It plunges us into the moment. It moves the plot forward. As art, good dialogue has as much to do with the sound of music as the meaning of words. Nor is it having characters conveniently dump background information into the story—with quote marks around the words.
Like any craft, mastering good dialogue requires patience and practice, practice, practice. Like any art, no one can teach you, but we can point you in the right direction. The illusion of speech The first thing to remember is that good dialogue is all illusion.
We want to suggest the way people speak, not mimic it. Out of fear or politeness, many people never say what they mean. Just as often, we may utter just about any remark to keep from looking dumb, discourteous, or disinterested.
Then again, some people say one thing, and mean another. Other times, words fail us or the wrong ones burble out. As a writer, your job is to turn all this to your own purposes.
By understanding how real speech works—with its half-spoken phrases, false starts, interruptions, and misdirection--you can begin to play dialogue like an instrument.
Sometimes your characters may speak without listening, with interesting possibilities for plot. Or maybe someone is enraged, her words saying one thing, but her tone revealing another.
Or another character may barely know what he feels or means, and you might make him inarticulate on purpose. The results can be either comic or tragic. Either way, let your dialogue reveal character and advance the plot.
Try to get a feel for the ebb and flow, the rhythm, the counterpoint of speech. There was a time I actually went around listening in on strangers in restaurants, on buses, and in other public places while I furiously and surreptitiously tried to scribble it down.
In private, I reconstructed these bits as well as significant conversations from my own life, figuring out what to keep, what to leave out, and how to rearrange the lines for best effect. I was also interested in how dialogue reveals emotion, but that's another discussion. In one interview, Eudora Welty described often using overheard dialogue in her novels and stories.
You never ate goat? Please don't say you served goat at this reunion. I wasn't told it was goat I was served," the other person replied. It seems you can do a whole lot of things with overheard dialogue, too.
Here's a hopelessly boring example: She laughed suddenly and sharply and went halfway through the door, then turned her head to say coolly: Or can I call you Phil?
Dialogue Tags Dialogue tags tell us who is speaking. They may seem mundane and mechanical, but they require just as much art and craft as any other aspect of dialogue.
Often a tag simply identifies the speaker "Mary said" or "he said"but dialogue tags have artful purposes as well. Here are some things to think about when using them. The reader's eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb—provided it's the verb said—simply gets discarded.
As for all those fancier tag lines like snarl, moan, snap, hiss, wail, whine, whimper, shout, groan, sneer, growl, they have the opposite effect.
The scene will build up to it, so the writer doesn't have to use any obvious words to indicate the manner in which the speaker is speaking. Perhaps the writer means to show her creativity, but these tags are obtrusive. They also tell rather than show.
If the speaker is goading another character, show it in his facial expression, the tone of his words, or some other action.
If she nags, let her repeat herself. Or maybe she interrupts.A decision as momentous as dropping your life for a few months and starting over is not one anyone should take lightly. With that being said, there is no place other than Tech Elevator that I would have ever even considered doing this.
Great list of templates! Thanks for providing samples. Perfect for when I have to help new marketers or interns. The best ones in my opinion are the templates that address the problem(s) being solved.
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