Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Elements of writing effective dialogue in fiction.

Fiction Craft: Dialogue 


Robert L. Ferrier

Dialogue offers a powerful tool for developing characters, building conflict and foreshadowing events. Listen to conversation by people of all ages, ethnic groups, occupations and gender. Real conversation sounds brief. So does fiction dialogue, with conflict added. Read masters of the craft--Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway.

Functions of Dialogue:

1. Developing Characters

Characters identify themselves in dialogue by words, attitude, tone and "speech tags." For example, the character Wednesday in Neil Gaiman's novel, AMERICAN GODS, addresses Shadow with the speech tag, "m'boy." Through Wednesday's attitude, we "hear" his sense of superiority and volatility.

2. Building Conflict through Stimulus-Response

Conflict hogs 95% of a scene. Thus, dialogue between characters resembles sparring.

Dialogue acts as a stimulus at the end of a paragraph. With few exceptions, the responding character's dialogue should link immediately in the next paragraph. On the other hand, if a paragraph ends in action rather than words, the responding paragraph should begin with action. This parallel linkage speeds readability.

The dialogue techniques of linking (repeating) words or using question and answers tighten stimulus-response between paragraphs. One exception: in a highly-charged transaction, it's acceptable to delay the response by inserting emotion.

3. Foreshadowing Future Action

After writing your first draft, you know all major events in the story. Take advantage of this knowledge by inserting new dialogue to foreshadow these events. Here's a segment from my novel, DEAR MR. KAPPS. In the original draft, Mr. Elconin was a minor character. Later events provided an opportunity to make him a major charactor, as evidenced by this inserted scene, which takes place in the lounge of a retirement home.:
I turned my back to the jigsaw puzzle ladies, but I felt their stares.

"Mr. Elconin, I saw you reading Model Flyer. Can you teach me to fly a model airplane?"

A light sparkled in his eyes. "What model will you be flying?"

"I don't know. A trainer." I felt stupid.

He stared at me. "Ever work with gasoline models?"

"No, sir. I'm just starting." I felt him slipping away. "I've got to fly a trainer before I try The Lightning."

His eyes widened. "Lightning? You mean a P-38 Lightning?"

"Yes, sir. I need to fly that plane before it's too late."

He crossed his legs. "Too late for what?"

"For my friend to see it happen." I searched for the words. "We're building the plane together...or we were. Now he's dying, and I'm building it."

"Dying? How old is he?"

"Fourteen. We've got cancer. That's how we met, during chemotherapy." I felt bad, talking about BB. "He doesn't have much time. He's got to see that plane fly."

"Cancer." He stared at my bald head, then his eyes glazed over, and he drifted away."That's how I lost my the cancer." He came back from the past and raised both hands. "You don't have a prayer."

"Why? I'm willing to learn! I need a teacher!"

"Humph!" He pointed a bony finger at me. "That Lightning flies too fast for a rookie." He made a darting movement with his hands. "Before you learn, your friend will be dead."

I felt my face flush. "So I should quit? I never quit! I haven't quit on my cancer. I'll bet your wife didn't quit! She fought, and you helped her fight!"

I heard a gasp from the jigsaw ladies. The room fell silent. Even the fire seemed to stop crackling. Mr. Elconin's eyes flamed. He might have lapsed into some memory. Then he looked up again. "You finished that Lightning yet?"

"Well, no. We've...I've got to finish the tail, fit the engine, paint the plane...."

"Great googlie mooglie!" he muttered.

As an exercise, circle all linked (repeated) words and question/answer transactions in the above scene. Note how these techniques speed flow while building tension. 

Twitter: @Dante_Dreams 
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