This Business of Writing

The Hidden Secret to Dialogue

In The Craft of Writing on November 2, 2009 at 7:50 am

Dialogue may be one of the toughest lessons a successful writer must learn and is often the difference between a novel and a best-selling novel. How then, does one go about mastering written dialogue? This week, I’ll take an in-depth look at the subject.

Some say this skill called dialogue cannot be taught. It is an inane quality one has or has not. I disagree. In fact, I feel writing is one of the few arts most can master. Successful writing is another story, but writing, is limited only by ones perseverance.

Dialogue is nothing more than conversation. The trick is how to deliver that conversation within your novel’s setting to make it effective and interesting. Though the individual words an author chooses are of utmost importance, the music within the words makes the characters come alive. In fact, it is a large part of that nebulous “voice” each author must develop.

I’ve struggled with how to explain effective dialogue so I think I’ll simply say it’s the flow, the cadence, or better yet, the music within your words. Look for the lilt, the way the words “fit” together to create a natural flow.

Let’s consider two simple examples. Close your eyes and without rushing, recite these two sentences aloud, one after the other. Do that a few times but don’t listen to the words. Listen for your inflection. Listen to the way one syllable glides toward the next. Listen to the way the words tumble from your mouth and how they form on your lips. Listen to the flow of the words, the music within them.

“What time is it?’”

“What time of day is it?”

I think you’ll find the second sentence to have a much more formal lilting or cadence to it. Though I did not plan it this way, the second reads as if one’s butler might have asked the question.

If you “saw” the way the words in the two sentences worked together and how the sentences differed from each other, you already have the foundation of effective dialogue. Do that same exercise with every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene you write and soon it will become second nature.

If you cannot find your own sense of music, I suggest you read books written by authors you appreciate. Read their dialogue as outlined above to find their music. A cadence is in there and you will see it if you work at it. It may not come easily to you, but come it will. Once you’ve found it, read your own work aloud as you look for your own music. And as with all success, you must then practice until it becomes a natural part of the way you write.

This music, once you develop your own, is also  key to creating effective dialogue for different characters. We’ll use the same two sentences as our example with this.

As I mentioned, the second sentence sounded as if one’s butler might have used that terminology. This is a perfect example of how you use dialogue for characterizations. How might a bored teenager ask that same question? How would an engineer or a prostitute? Each character within your novel will have a different music of his own. Your music will be the basis for which to create characters, but the music within their dialogue will make them real to your readers.

Drop a line if you have any questions.

May all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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  1. I agree that each character would have their own way of asking the same question. I love thinking about what each character in my novel would ask. It is truly eye opening.

    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Darksculptures. If you have any specific aspects relative to dialogue you’d like covered, let me know.

    C. Patrick Schulze

  3. Dialogue is the weakest thread in my writing. It is also the most important thread and holds the entire story together. The dialogue is what makes it real for the reader. The most important devise available to help the author show and not tell the story.

    I’m frustrated by how little the writing courses I have taken touch on the subject of dialogue. Any advise, tips, hints, secret formulas, even voodoo spells(if necessary)will be greatly appreciated!

    I look forward to reading more on this subject thoughout the week!

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