Allison McKowen recently asked this question below one of the blog pieces at my web site after commenting that she admired the dialogue I wrote in THE SECRET MISTRESS: “I have, several times, started to write a story, but get bogged down when it comes to the dialog. How did you learn to write dialog, if such a talent can be condensed into a reasonably succinct answer?”
I must say that writing dialogue is my favorite part of writing. Fortunately, I think most readers like a lot of dialogue in the books they read. I know I do. So I try to include as much as possible in the books I write. I learned how to do it, I suppose, by doing it! It is only recently that I realized many writers actually study and learn the various arts of writing. Maybe I am just one of the lucky (or cheeky) ones. I have always just written and have never even thought of looking at any how-to books or attending any how-to workshops.
I like to set up a scene before I begin dialogue in such a way that the two characters involved have something to say to each other. Perhaps they are gearing up to argue about something, or perhaps one of them needs to unburden him/herself to the other. Perhaps they have something important to discuss or decide. Or perhaps they have been thrown together and really don’t know what to say to each other but cannot avoid saying something. Whatever the situation happens to be, when my characters start talking, I let them go to it. Much of the time it feels as though I am not directing the conversation at all, but merely listening in and writing it down as quickly as I can. Often they surprise me–in fact, they almost always do. I learn about my characters when they are speaking and interacting. My plot is often determined and carried forward by what they say.
One thing I have learned about dialogue as I have gone along is that as the two characters speak, the reader needs to be able to picture the scene as well as to listen to what is being said. I am careful to include details about their facial expressions and body language, as well as the thoughts and emotional responses of the character from whose point of view that particular scene is being told (my scenes are almost always written from the point of view of either the hero or the heroine). I will include a few details about their surroundings–a dying fire, rain lashing a window, one of them getting up to pour a fresh drink, etc. And another thing I have learned from the books I read: I find it hugely annoying if I can’t keep track of who is speaking and have to keep going back to work it out. Even if it may sometimes seem unnecessary always to have the “he said,” “she said,” labels, I still think it preferable to not having them at all.
I would be interested to read your comments on dialogue. To two randomly chosen people who leave a comment below before the end of Saturday, February 28, I will send a signed copy of LONGING, my March republication.