This post is about dialogue, and a different dialogue question came in on the blog very recently. I’m going to hold it until its turn comes, but, Brambles and Bees, you may find this one useful too.
On January 25, 2021, FantasyFan101 wrote, I need help with dialogue. First of all, I feel I don’t give enough dialogue, and second, I feel that I don’t unleash enough of the characters into their speech, and it makes it dull. For example:
The next morning Anderis woke early and scouted the surrounding space. What he found was frightening. He roused his mother.
“Mother, wake up. Hurry! We have to keep moving. I found fresh cougar tracks a little ways south of the camp. One must have come down from the Posuit Mountains. It’s likely scouting the area because it found us. It could attack any time,” said Anderis.
“All right, Anderis. I’m getting up,” his mother replied.
See? I don’t know if it’s too quick, or if I should slow down and make them talk longer. Is the mother’s reaction boring? Do I describe the landscape? Nearly the whole book is like this. Please help.
A few of you pitched in back then.
Katie W.: I think maybe the reason it feels like your dialogue is boring is because you’re trying to fit too much information into the dialogue instead of the narrative. I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but here’s how I would rewrite your example.
Anderis woke before dawn the next morning. The air was still, but something had changed. Careful not to wake his mother, he set off to see what the problem was. It didn’t take long. A little way south of the camp was a set of pawprints the size of his hand. Cougar tracks. He glanced up at the Posuit Mountains looming overhead, wondering if any more cats were following the first. Anderis shivered and turned back to the camp before his imagination finished getting the better of him.
“Mother, wake up! Hurry!” he called, dropping to his knees next to her. She grumbled something and rolled over. He shook her shoulder, hard, before she could fall asleep again.
“What’s the matter?” she mumbled.
“I found fresh cougar tracks just south of here. It must have come down from the mountains. It could attack any time.”
“All right, Anderis. I’m getting up.”
In general, the character traits that come through in dialogue are things like humor, sarcasm, how outgoing the character is, and precise details about their emotional state. If you’re looking for examples, I would probably recommend Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its sequels (late middle school and up) for humorous dialogue, Enchanted, by Alathea Kontis, (middle school and up) for extended conversations, and anything by Timothy Zahn (high school and up except for his MG Dragonback series) for help with description both within and outside of dialogue.
Melissa Mead: I agree with Katie W’s approach. Rather than say “What he found was frightening,” show us what he found, and help us feel why it’s frightening.
Cougars don’t usually attack people, though. They’re usually quite shy. You’d have to describe what triggered them. This looks like it might be helpful: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/what-do-about-cougars.
Belle Adora: If you are writing and aren’t sure if the dialogue sounds natural, read it out loud.
These are terrific! I especially like Katie W.’s introduction of Anderis’s thoughts into the narrative.
The reader of the whole story has the advantage over us in knowing what the conflict in this story is and what to worry about. But if this is the very beginning, and one of the problems is the defenselessness of, say, travelers, we can start to bring this in, using Anderis’s thoughts as well as what he says.
Melissa Mead’s link about cougars can help us. (I love using research in my fiction.) In narration, we can say that these are, for example, a subspecies called Calamity Cougars because they’re not at all shy and kill with their claws as well as their fangs. Such information will raise the stakes.
We can bring in body language to join the conversation, so to speak. Anderis’s mom’s response to his urgency can be just to roll over. Or she can jump up and, disoriented, run in the direction of the pawprints. Or something else. We can make a list.
Meanwhile, he can start breaking camp, his gestures sharp and angry. Or something else.
And we can list what Anderis might think, like that she never really gets moving before noon, or that he has to worry for both of them since she’s so calm, or how his father could always get Mom to do whatever he wanted.
And we can list what she might say. She might start telling him the great dream he interrupted. Or make fun of him for worrying.
Feelings can get into the act. Voices can be raised or lowered. Mom can sing to drown Anderis out.
As we try things, we define our characters, and our dialogue tightens.
It will help if we know the problem of our story, which could be malevolent, weirdly smart cougars encroaching on human civilization. Or Anderis and Mom are fleeing after robbing a den of thieves. Or they’re on a camping trip to repair their relationship.
If we don’t already know, we can use this cougar-threat moment to decide what the larger conflict might be, or to try out some possibilities.
Once we do know, we consider their personalities, which will determine to a large degree how they express themselves. Anderis may be direct. He says what he thinks and makes sure he’s understood. Mom may be imaginative. In a discussion, she goes down more than one path and doesn’t double back to make sure Anderis is following. He says, “Cougars are coming.” She says, “They’re such beautiful animals.” He says, “And lethal.” She says, “Do you know we share a common ancestor?” He groans. She says, “What’s wrong, son?”
That was fun.
Here are a few technical things to think about:
- Dialogue tends to be livelier if it’s broken up by action, like Mom rolling over to go back to sleep.
- Unless this is a high-action scene, the thoughts and feelings of the POV character will bring the reader in. If it is a high-action scene, these—and dialogue—should appear in brief bursts.
- In real life, people sometimes do speak in long sentences and long paragraphs, but they’re hard to plow through and tend to feel unnatural in fiction. We should be concise unless we have a character on our hands who is wordy or who is frightened into babbling. In that case, it’s fine.
- Whenever dialogue switches from one character to another, we start a new paragraph, which will help the reader keep track.
- The reader always needs to know who’s speaking, but we can accomplish that sometimes by giving the speaker an action. For instance, one of them can say, “Where did you put the arrows?” followed in the same paragraph by Anderis pulling aside a blanket. Then the reader knows he said the line. Of course, he can also say, “Mom, where did you put the arrows” and the reader will know.
- If we need to just say who’s speaking, the verbs said and ask are better than anything else (like replied or queried) because said and ask don’t draw attention to themselves. The exception is when we’re revealing volume. If a character is whispering, the reader should be told.
And here are three prompts from the story possibilities I suggested above. Write a scene chock full of dialogue and, if you like, continue to finish the story.
- Malevolent, weirdly smart cougars are encroaching on human civilization.
- Anderis and Mom are fleeing after robbing a den of thieves.
- Anderis and Mom are on a camping trip to repair their relationship.
Have fun, and save what you write!