This is a continuation of the article I wrote last week. You can read it here.

In this post I’ll talk about:

  1. to show conflict, (show vs. tell)
  2. to impart information to the reader succinctly,
  3. to make the reader a part of the action.
  4. Determine the pacing of the story

To show conflict

Whenever a writer has a story that is flat and dull, it can be fixed with conflict. Conflict in dialogue is one way to beef up a tale. Conflict in dialogue can be argumentative or agonizing. It can be anything the creative writer wants it to be.

Inner conflict can be shown through tag lines and through the inner conflict, we learn more about the character.

To impart information to the reader succinctly

“Mother didn’t say anything about our money, and she won’t wish us to give up everything. Let’s each buy what we want, and have a little fun; I’m sure we work hard enough to earn it,” cried Jo, examining the heels of her shoes in a gentlemanly manner.

“I know I do — teaching those tiresome children nearly all day when I’m longing to enjoy myself at home,” began Meg, in the complaining tone again.

“You don’t have half such a hard time as I do,” said Jo, “How would you like to be shut up for hours with a nervous, fussy old lady, who keeps you trotting, is never satisfied, and worries you till you’re ready to fly out of the window or cry?”

“It’s naughty to fret; but I do think washing dishes and keeping things tidy is the worst work in the world. It makes me cross; and my hands get so still, I can’t practice well at all”; and Beth looked at her rough hands with a sigh that anyone could hear that time.

Little Women

We know right away that these are not modern young women and they’re not wealthy. All it takes is a few lines of dialogue and we know a lot about these characters and the situation they’re in.

To make the reader a part of the action

Dialogue brings the readers into the action. When you show rather than tell you involve your reader more deeply into the story and in order to do that, more often than not, you need dialogue. For example:

Telling: Evan was angry.

Showing: Evan slammed the door shut behind him. “I’m home! Just as you commanded, I’m home, okay?”

By his words alone we know that Evan’s not a happy camper. I don’t even need a dialogue tag to say that he’s yelling. You can hear the volume and tone of his voice any way you want and you’ll still pick up that Evan is angry.

Here are some other tips on writing dialogue:

Get your speech-attribution tags in as early as possible. There’s nothing more frustrating than not knowing whose dialog you’re reading. Slip the tag in after the first completed clause in the sentence: “You know,” said Juan, “when the sky is that shade of blue it reminds me of my childhood back in Mexico.” And when alternating lines of dialog, make sure you identify speakers at least every five or six exchanges; it’s very easy for the reader to get lost otherwise.

Don’t Interrupt Dialogue with Excessive Gestures

When you write a conversation, you often have images in your mind of your characters making facial or hand gestures. As writers we want to ensure that the reader is seeing the action as well as hearing it, but the show don’t tell rule can get out of hand during dialogue. Excessive description of gestures gets in the way of the dialogue. Your goal is to write dialogue that expresses emotion without gestures. Let your readers fill in the details with their imagination.

Here is a conversation that is filled with emotion, but the gestures get distracting.

“Why would she do that to me?” George scowled in disgust and threw down his newspaper.

“She was sick, George,” said Bertha, placing her hands on his shoulders.

“I did everything for her!” George sat at the table and buried his head in his hands. “Everything.”

“It’s not your fault.” She sat down next to him.

George looked up the ceiling and cried out, “Why God! Why would you hand me the love of my life and take her away like this?”

Now try removing those excess gestures. Notice how even though the images in your head aren’t exactly the same as what the author imagined, the emotion is still there, and you’re less distracted from that emotion.

“Why would she do that to me?” George threw down his newspaper.

“She was sick, George,” said Bertha.

“I did everything for her! Everything.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Why God!” George cried out. “Why would you hand me the love of my life and take her away like this?”

Don’t Repeat Your Actions in Dialogue and Vice Versa

Susan picked up the knife.

“What are you doing with that knife?” said George. “Please, put it down. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

Susan lunged at George. He grabbed her arm but tried not to hurt her.

“Stop it, Susan! I don’t want to hurt you.”

Repeating the actions in the dialogue slows down the story and takes the reader away from the action. It’s much more efficient and effective to write:

“What are you doing with that knife?” said George. “Please, put it down. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

Susan lunged at George. He grabbed her arm.

“Stop it, Susan! I don’t want to hurt you.”

For Fantasy and SciFi writers:

James Blish coined the word “shmeerps” to describe a fantasy creature. The concept is that if it looks like a rabbit and acts like a rabbit, calling it a smeerp doesn’t make it an alien. Call things what they are. If you create a three eared, five-eyed, evil rabbit who wants to take over and rule the world, by all means, call it a shmeerp, but otherwise, call it a rabbit.

Watch for anachronisms in your dialogue. Using modern slang in a medieval fantasy just won’t cut it.

Grammar Lesson (Ew! Sorry!)

The mechanics of writing dialogue:

1. Steve said,Good morning.

2. “Good morning,said Steve.

3. Steve said,Good morning,then sat down.

4. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Steve,good morning.”

5. “Good morning!” Steve said. (note: I didn’t say, ‘Steve exclaimed or shouted’ that’s implied in the exclamation mark, so it’s unnecessary to explain it further to your reader, they got it.)

6. “Is it a good morning?” asked Steve.