I’ve spent the last couple of days writing a particular scene in my book that is very dialogue heavy. It might not remain so, as I plan to pop in some description and other detail between points in the conversation, but for the most part, about 70% of what I have written has been chatter between characters.
I enjoy dialogue a lot. I wonder if my pleasure derives from my experience as a role-player because the majority of that time is spent in dialogue with other player characters. I consider dialogue to be one of my strong suits as a writer. I’m very good at conveying a character’s personality, tone, and experience through their words and putting that into use in the novel has been fun.
I think where writers have trouble with dialogue and where it can fall flat is we want it to sound realistic, like what it would be like to really hear these people (our characters) speak, yet if we write in a purely true-to-real-life fashion, it comes out very slow and dull.
My goal and technique is to make the VOICE of the character (their personality and mannerisms) authentic and consistent but make their WORDS (what they say between those quotation marks) move the story forward. If we think of dialogue as communication and not just words, then we can recognize that thought and body language are as much a part of dialogue as the stuff that’s spoken.
Written dialogue shouldn’t just be to convey conversation in a novel. It should serve multiple purposes. It should explore backstory, develop plot, give insight into the psychology of the speaker, and be entertaining and engaging. If it doesn’t do all of that, it’s got to go, or else be reexamined and rewritten until it does accomplish these things.
Good writing doesn’t infodump on the reader, so using dialogue to creatively express information (in a believable way — no ‘Maid and Butler’ chats, thank you) is a valuable technique.
Here’s a small sample of the scene I’m talking about. It’s not finished, not by a longshot, but I have tried focusing on making sure that the chat between Lyon and Mal does more than just pass the time between these two. I want to show their relationship, Lyon’s history and backstory, the connection that several of the characters mentioned have to one another, and how that connection impacts them individually. After reading this, I’m hoping that my readers know who Lyon, Mal, Otto, and Alen are — or at least who Lyon is because he is a main character:
“I picked Neb’s pockets today without ringing any bells,” Mal announced as they seated themselves on the roof to look out over the dingy skyline of Sivorno.
Lyon grinned and thought of the rough wooden mannequin dressed in rags, “Good job. Neb used to give me some trouble when I was your age. I thought the others who watched were ringing bells just to mess with me.”
“You used to ring Neb’s bells? Really?”
“Yep, all the time, until I got better at it.”
“I bet you don’t ring a single bell anymore, do you?” Mal picked at a hole in the side of his pants and scratched his knee.
“I haven’t tried Neb for a few years now, but I guess that’d be right.” Lyon chuckled, “so then you’ll be ready to try picking Alen’s pockets next, yeah?”
Mal looked at him, wide-eyed, “huh?”
“That’s the next test once you’ve beaten Neb. You have to nick Alen’s book and hide it from him.”
“But won’t that make him mad? I don’t want to get in trouble.” Mal shook his head.
“Nah, he’ll be expecting it in a way. Me and Rico nicked his book when we were young and sort of set the path for all the others to try. He won’t be mad,” Lyon shrugged, “not for long, anyway.”
Mal’s freckles scrunched together as he considered what Lyon told him.
“You don’t have to try it alone, you know. Is there another in the gang you’d trust to plan this with? Maybe Selly or Eduard?” He turned to face the boy and smiled.
“Selly can’t nick anything. Otto told her she’s gotta get back into the dressmaker’s shop as the errand girl before he’ll let her have a new doll. But the dressmaker says that her best scissors went missing after Selly showed up. So Otto’s gonna buy new scissors for her and have Selly sneak them in. I don’t think Selly can nick Alen’s book. He’d know right away it was her, and she’d tell right away it was me who told her to do it.” Mal looked up at Lyon, “Eduard is alright. I know he won’t talk, but he’s scared of Alen.”
“Alen’s not scary.” Lyon snorted.
“I’m not scared of him, but I don’t want to get in trouble either.”
“Otto won’t let you get in trouble for that. He’d probably give you a talon for pulling it off.”
Hearing that made Mal’s eyes light up, “A whole talon? Really?”
“Why not? And if he doesn’t I will.” Lyon pulled a silver coin out of his purse and showed it to the boy, rolling it across the backs of his fingers before it vanished into his palm with a flourish. “You show me Alen’s book and the coin is yours.”
“Jackmouse’s honor?” Mal asked, holding out his hand.
Lyon tapped three fingertips against the boy’s palm, sealing his oath. “Jackmouse’s honor.”