Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Strong Dialogue Matters So Much--And Three Tips to Write It



Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?


In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Chef Test--Why Dialogue Matters So Much
I used to be a restaurant chef, in another life.  I was in charge of a small place in southern California, working the "line" with a wonderful team of cooks.

After hours, when the restaurant was closed and the kitchen was clean, we slummed.  We visited other restaurants and tasted their soups.

Why soup?  Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill.  Soups are so hard to season well, so impossible to fake.  You can cover up so-so entrees with great sauces, and chefs know this.  So in the food business, soups are the "test" for a chef's skill.  If a chef can get incredible flavor out of few ingredients in a soup, even better. 

Now my theory may not pass the Chopped! test, but it is a good analogy for understanding why dialogue is so key to good writing.  Editors know that a so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters.  Or vice versa.  The story becomes palatable.  But a to quickly learn a writer's skill, the editor uses the "soup" test--checking out dialogue.  Does it contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)?  Are the beats (pauses) placed well?  Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

All of these are like test-tasting a chef's soup.  It tells an editor a lot in just a few minutes.

You can try out my soup theory at the next restaurant you visit.  Order a bowl and taste it, as we did, savoring or rejecting it, guessing the seasonings.  It is more than a fun game, it can teach you a lot about cooking.  Then do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few of the most important tips from my workshop in Minneapolis.  Maybe they will help your dialogue shine!

Dialogue Tip #1:  Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject.  This is called a "reveal."  Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc.  If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension.  The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story.  This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax. 

Reveals are where someone says what they mean.  So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again:  Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext.  This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering.  Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said.  All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Dialogue Tip #2:  Enhance the emotion of the subtext by  connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin.  Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character. 

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man.  Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off. 

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances.  No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed.  So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up. 

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill:  As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier.  The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints. 

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels.  The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly. 

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done.  And try it yourself:  If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way.  Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Dialogue Tip #3:  Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats.  A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge.  At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader.  In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like roadmaps in dialogue.  They are placed carefully because of this one rule:  Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension.  Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example: 
"I love you," he said, "not her." 

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read:  "I love you, not her," he said.  (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference?  Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue? 

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said are called dialogue tags). 

"I know your name."  He took a pull on his drink.  "I just forgot it."  (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

I study favorite dialogue passages in published books, reading them aloud, to discover where to place the beats in my own dialogue.

These are just a few of the aspects of strong dialogue.  But maybe they'll help you take your dialogue to another level.

Remember, it's the key to a successful story--one that will be read and savored by others.


Your weekly writing exercise is to take 15 minutes and find a favorite published book (novel, memoir, nonfiction) that uses dialogue.  Locate a passage that, to you, really sings.  Figure out if the author used any of the dialogue techniques listed above. 


Then go to your own writing.  Choose a stuck scene.  Add 5 lines of dialogue, employing the techniques in this blog post.  See if it makes a difference.