Dialogue is a powerful way to reveal your characters and move your story forward. In The Craft of Character online class through Coursera.org, authors Amy Bloom and Brando Skyhorse discuss the role of dialogue in character development.
The class is part of Wesleyan College’s Craft Your Story Like the Great Writers specialization that takes students through plot, character development, setting and description, and style. The creative writing specialization covers elements of three major creative writing genres: short story, narrative essay, and memoir. The classes start at $79 each, but you can access videos and certain assignments free of charge.
In a video interview, Skyhorse, author of The Madonnas of Echo Park, and Bloom discussed the role of dialogue. Great dialogue should:
Reveal your characters. One of the ways readers get to know characters is from what they say as well as what they do, and more specifically, what they do to one another, Skyhorse said. Dialogue should deepen the reader’s understanding of character or advance the plot. Read more
In July, I took Margie Lawson’s Immersion Master Class, an intensive three and a half day workshop on deep editing. My brain is still teeming with all the tips we learned to turn our manuscripts into bestsellers.
One day, as we reviewed one of my first-draft chapters in my current project, we came across a short paragraph about a character’s driving skills.
In the scene, my character is driving along a dark, windy road in the mountains at night when he comes across my protagonist walking along the side of the road after she’d just seen her maybe-boyfriend sucking face with another woman. (Every time I hear the words “sucking face,” I think of the 1981 movie “On Golden Pond,” where I first heard the term. The power of fresh writing!)
Anyway, the driver of the car offers my protagonist a ride home (she knows him—he’s the new man in town). She learns more about him and why he’s in town. He ends up giving her relationship advice and flirting heavily with her.
Here’s the paragraph in question:
“Hmmm,” he said, tapping his brakes before the next curve, then laying off them during the turn. He handled the vehicle as if he’d had years of experience coaxing the two-ton beast into compliance. “Any news on your grandfather?”
Questions that came up in class: Read more
Your characters’ speech reveals volumes about their education, personality, and where they grew up. A character who was reared in the deep South will speak with a different accent and use different slang than one who grew up in the Midwest. When it comes to creating distinct characters in the readers’ minds, using slang — without overdoing it — can help form a character’s personality.
My friends and family have lived in a variety of places, so I’ve picked up on slang from the West and southern United States, as well as British slang from my friends who hail from the United Kingdom. My Midwestern friends say hot dish while my family in the Western U.S. call it casserole. Depending on where you’re from, you might say “pop” where others say, “soda” or “soda pop.” Some of my friends say sofa and others couch.
Here are several examples. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that slang can migrate as people move from one part of the country to another.
Here’s what my southern friends say:
Fit to be tied — frustrated, angry, agitated
Fixin’ – about or getting ready. “I’m fixin’ to go to school.”
Hunkey Dorey — everything is fine.
Hankerin’ for – a desire/craving for where my British friends might say they “fancied” something.
My British friends have been known to use these expressions: Read more
In an earlier post, I wrote about some of the great tips I learned from writing guru Margie Lawson at the recent Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference.
Lawson coined the term “dialogue cues” to describe the psychological/emotional subtext around dialogue. (For a great discussion of subtext with examples, read The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter).
I’ve been experimenting with creating dialogue cues since Lawson’s class and made up my own “dialogue cue” practice as I did with metaphor practice. Here’s what I do:
1. Using one word or a short phrase make a list of attributes of your character—try using what Lawson calls “power words,” words that have an emotional or psychological impact on your reader.
The list for the antagonist in my current work might look like this: Sexy, Sensual, Ancient, Devious, Infectious, Hypnotic, Charming. Read more