HOW TO ENHANCE YOUR CHARACTER’S DIALOGUE

ENHANCING YOUR CHARACTER’S DIALOGUE

As an author you spend years honing your craft to write complete sentences which are error free and flow. Although it is important that an author can and does write clear sentences and uses the correct punctuation that is only half the battle. For most novelists we have it down-pat in writing descriptions and setting the tone, but we have to work at writing dialogue that authentic and is far from on the nose dialogue that it can get. It’s not easy, but it is something as a novelist we must master.

On the nose dialogue – I have read so many novels with on the nose dialogue in my publishing days that now, I close the book when a writer uses it. When writing dialogue, it is important to remember that when two people converse it is often not straightforward. Often, those who converse have hidden agendas, they hide the truth; they say one thing and mean another; they tell lies, they over exaggerate and so forth. By all accounts, this is far from straightforward dialogue; so, why would a novelist do that to their characters. Our character’s dialogue must contain more than just words. Sometimes it isn’t what they say, but rather what they do with their hands, mouth, eyes and body language. Read the following short dialogue.

SAMPLE DIALOGUE

Marge chopped onions as she wiped her tears.

Frank entered; a scowl creased his brow. “What’s wrong honey?”

“Nothing at all.”

“Then why the tears?”

“Nothing. It’s the onions.”

Okay, after reading this brief conversation we know three things: Marge is cutting onions, her eyes are teary, and Frank wants to know why. She says, “Nothing at all.” My question to you is, does she mean it? Of course not, there is something else wrong or is there? If we leave it as is, the reader doesn’t know, they can only surmise. As a writer I wouldn’t leave this brief dialogue like this, let the reader into the lives of Marge and Frank. I would enhance it with subtexts or add her thoughts or body language and inner dialogue to draw in the reader. I would do the same thing with Frank. An important thing to remember is that every scene in your book, every paragraph has three parts: a beginning, middle, and an end. Also, it is important for some sort of conflict to exist. Why? It keeps your readers interested and if you don’t your dialogue falls flat. Now read the same brief dialogue that is enhanced with subtext; e.g., emotions, body language, thoughts, emotions etc.

ENHANCED DIALOGUE

Marge chopped onions as she wiped her tears. If he thinks I’m going to play nice, he has another thing coming. She sniffled as she gasped, and then lowered her head. Her heart thrummed against her ribcage.

Frank staggered into the kitchen; a scowl creased his brow. “What’s wrong honey?” His tone soft and comforting grated her nerves.

“Nothing at all.” Marge pursed her lips. She felt her blood pulse in her wrists as she slammed the knife onto the onion.

“Then why the tears?” He placed his hand on her shoulder as he planted a gentle kiss onto her cheek.

She recoiled and averted his gaze. “Nothing. It’s the onions.” Her sarcastic tone spoke the truth to her words. She jabbed the knife into the bamboo cutting board.

Frank’s eyes widened as he stepped backward. His jaw clenched as a pit formed in his stomach. Here we go again. I can’t even try to be nice.

Now that I’ve added the inner thoughts, emotions, body language etc. the reader has a better idea of what the relationship is between Marge and Frank; things aren’t hunky-dory. Let’s examine the subtext in terms of:

  • Body language
  • Visceral Reactions
  • Inner Thoughts
  • Voice Tone

BODY LANGUAGE

In the following dialogue, I have used a bold font to identify the body language in both Marge and Frank that indicates their true feelings. In this case, it wasn’t what they said, it is what their body did.

Marge chopped onions as she wiped her tears. If he thinks I’m going to play nice, he has another thing coming. She sniffled as she gasped, and then lowered her head. Her heart thrummed against her ribcage.

Frank staggered into the kitchen; a scowl creased his brow. “What’s wrong honey?” His tone soft and comforting grated her nerves.

“Nothing at all.” Marge pursed her lips. She felt her blood pulse in her wrists as she slammed the knife onto the onion.

“Then why the tears?” He placed his hand on her shoulder as he planted a gentle kiss onto her cheek.

She recoiled and averted his gaze. “Nothing. It’s the onions.” Her sarcastic tone spoke the truth to her words. She jabbed the knife into the bamboo cutting board.

Frank’s eyes widened as he stepped backward. His jaw clenched as a pit formed in his stomach. Here we go again. I can’t even try to be nice.

Notice that the body action or body language provided the reader with important information. With these actions, it is easy to tell that something is definitely wrong. We get an idea that she is upset and angry with Frank. She is crying, her blood pressure is raised, and she is angry when she slams the knife. We get a clue that he may be drunk, e.g., he staggered, and he might feel guilty or his is trying to make it up to her, he becomes offended with her actions as he stepped backward and clenched his jaw.

VISCERAL REACTIONS

Visceral Reactions are those things that aren’t visible, they occur on the inside to explain an emotion or a physical condition. Look at the dialogue again with the visceral reactions in bold print.

Marge chopped onions as she wiped her tears. If he thinks I’m going to play nice, he has another thing coming. She sniffled as she gasped, and then lowered her head. Her heart thrummed against her ribcage.

Frank staggered into the kitchen; a scowl creased his brow. “What’s wrong honey?” His tone soft and comforting grated her nerves.

“Nothing at all.” Marge pursed her lips. She felt her blood pulse in her wrists as she slammed the knife onto the onion.

“Then why the tears?” He placed his hand on her shoulder as he planted a gentle kiss onto her cheek.

She recoiled and averted his gaze. “Nothing. It’s the onions.” Her sarcastic tone spoke the truth to her words. She jabbed the knife into the bamboo cutting board.

Frank’s eyes widened as he stepped backward. His jaw clenched as a pit formed in his stomach. Here we go again. I can’t even try to be nice.

In the above examples, the reader gets a sense that there is tension because of the visceral reactions. Marge’s blood pressure raised, and he felt guilt.

INNER THOUGHTS

I love inner thoughts because a reader gets to get inside the head of a character that the other characters don’t here. Using inner thoughts gives readers a sense of knowing something. Look at the dialogue again with the inner thoughts in bold print.

 Marge chopped onions as she wiped her tears. If he thinks I’m going to play nice, he has another thing coming. She sniffled as she gasped, and then lowered her head.

Frank staggered into the kitchen; a scowl creased his brow. “What’s wrong honey?” His tone soft and comforting grated her nerves.

“Nothing at all.” Marge pursed her lips. She felt her blood pulse in her wrists as she slammed the knife onto the onion.

“Then why the tears?” He placed his hand on her shoulder as he planted a gentle kiss onto her cheek.

She recoiled and averted his gaze. “Nothing. It’s the onions.” Her sarcastic tone spoke the truth to her words. She jabbed the knife into the bamboo cutting board.

Frank’s eyes widened as he stepped backward. His jaw clenched as a pit formed in his stomach. Here we go again. I can’t even try to be nice.

As a reader knowing the inner thoughts provides a sense of knowing. Marge’s inner thought tells the reader she is angry. He doesn’t know it. In Frank’s inner thought, the reader learns they fight often and he may be giving up on being nice.

VOICE TONE

Have you ever played the game, SAY IT TEN TIMES DIFFERENTLY? Try it. Say, “I hear you,” ten different ways. Each time modify your intensity or accent a different word. The meaning changes. When you write dialogue the voice tone does this for the reader. Look at the dialogue again with the voice tone in bold print.

Marge chopped onions as she wiped her tears. If he thinks I’m going to play nice, he has another thing coming. She sniffled as she gasped, and then lowered her head. Her heart thrummed against her ribcage.

Frank staggered into the kitchen; a scowl creased his brow. “What’s wrong honey?” His tone soft and comforting grated her nerves.

“Nothing at all.” Marge pursed her lips. She felt her blood pulse in her wrists as she slammed the knife onto the onion.

“Then why the tears?” He placed his hand on her shoulder as he planted a gentle kiss onto her cheek.

She recoiled and averted his gaze. “Nothing. It’s the onions.” Her sarcastic tone spoke the truth to her words. She jabbed the knife into the bamboo cutting board.

Frank’s eyes widened as he stepped backward. His jaw clenched as a pit formed in his stomach. Here we go again. I can’t even try to be nice.

Now the reader knows exactly how a character’s dialogue should be read. Franks sounds apologetic and maybe caring and Marge, well she’s not being nice or soft spoken which changes the entire tone of this dialogue. Both of their true emotions were revealed to the reader by adding voice tone.

By adding body language, visceral reactions, inner thoughts and voice tone to your dialogue your characters will come alive onto the page. Master this, and your dialogue will be authentic.

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