* What’s not said is very often more powerful than what is – and the presence of unspoken words is a great tool for adding underlying tension to a scene. When writing dialogue, ask yourself what is it that your character is NOT willing to say, and use that knowledge to add intensity to the exchange. Here’s some practice: Write a scene in which a mother is urging her son to bring more friends home from school. What he doesn’t want to tell his mom is that her oversexed wardrobe embarrasses him.
* Sometimes a whole story can be told through dialogue, but you have to make sure you aren’t sneaking in clunky narrative or description into the characters’ lines (e.g. “Wanda! I can’t believe you are standing there in your lime green shirtwaist dress and 3/4-inch heels, telling me that you have once again broken the law, just like that time in ’06 when you shoplifted a lipstick from the grocery store and had to do fifty hours of community service, which you did at the Food Bank.”
You have to be inventive about getting the necessary information through to your reader. How about:
“Nice heels, Wanda. They yours, or did you steal them, too?”
“That was once, Evelyn, once. And it wasn’t like I robbed a bank, for god’s sake.”
“Stealin’s stealin’, even if it was just a lipstick. Judge musta thought so, or you wouldn’t have been doing time down at the Food Bank.”
Here’s one to practice. Write a scene told only through dialogue, starting with the lines:
“How could you have done that?”
“What else could I have done?”
* Giving your characters more than two or three uninterrupted sentences to speak usually makes it sound like they are giving a speech, not interacting with someone in a conversation. Make sure you are keeping the pace of the scene brisk, and the dialogue natural-sounding, by interspersing action amongst the talk. And, of course, when you’re choosing what actions to include, you’ll probably want to pick those that help to convey the mood of the speaker or otherwise support the scene. So, for example:
“I can’t take it anymore, Agnes!” Bill crushed his empty cigarette pack in one hand and slammed it on the table. “You just never let up.”
Paints a very different picture than:
“I can’t take it anymore, Agnes!” Bill tried to smooth the wrinkles out of his tired twill pants. He gave up and looked at the floor. “You just never let up.”
Practice: Write a scene in which a man tells his neighbour that it’s well known that his wife is having an affair with a local police constable. The conversation is held while the two men are washing a car together. Build the specifics of the car washing and detailing into the narrative, using it to enhance the mood of the scene, to bring the setting alive for the reader, and to break up the dialogue into natural-sounding sound bites.
* Silence is golden, especially when you want to build some tension or social awkwardness into a scene. In real life, we all know how pregnant pauses can immediately inject a wary watchfulness into a room full of previously relaxed conversationalists. Write a scene in which a company manager is trying to find out from the owner what the economic downturn is going to mean for their business. Use silence as well as words to create their exchange.