That legendary director and master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock is often quoted as saying “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out”.
Believe it or not, but the same applies to your dialogue.
In books, you don’t often get those small and polite but relatively pointless exchanges of “Hi, how are you?” “I’m okay, how are you doing?”
Why? They don’t advance the plot. Unless one character is going to say something that affects the story, it’s irrelevant. If it doesn’t demonstrate anything about the character, then the reader doesn’t need it.
So how do you actually handle dialogue?
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One thing I’ve noticed in the north east of England is the way people try to repeat conversations verbatim. It’s like we want to try and recreate the scene for the person we’re talking to.
Girl: “So I said to him, I said I didn’t care what his mother thinks of me, so he said that he doesn’t care either so it shouldn’t be an issue, so I said why were we even discussing it? So he then said he didn’t know either. It was so frustrating.”
Imagine this is fiction. You, as the writer, are essentially the girl repeating the conversation to her friend, who plays the part of the reader. You could recount the conversation this way, but that would be telling the reader what was said. It doesn’t really cover what actually happened.
Or you could show the conversation taking place.
“I don’t care what your mother thinks of me,” she said. She slammed down her drink on the table. The garish cocktail sprayed droplets of blue liquid across the wood.
“I know you don’t believe me, but I don’t care either. It’s not even an issue for me,” he replied. He wiped a napkin across the table.
“So why are we even discussing it?” she asked. She stared at him, her knuckles white where her fingers gripped her glass.
“I don’t know. Just forget about her. I already have,” he replied. He stretched across the table and wrapped his fingers around her free hand. A smile crept across her face.
See how that’s better? You can see the scene taking place. Let your characters speak in their own voice. Show us what they’re doing while they’re talking. Their body language and facial expressions say just as much as their words!
And yes, that is the old ‘show vs tell’ maxim rearing its ancient head again!
Next week we’ll take a look at how to make dialogue sound more natural. After all, if you’re cutting out the little exchanges that humans naturally have, then how do you avoid your conversations sounding like cheesy marketing scripts?
What topics would you like me to cover in future episodes of From Brain to Page? Let me know in the comments!
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