Dialogue is extremely important in creative writing. It is one of the writer’s most exciting tools.
Because it is the ultimate SHOW not TELL. You are allowing your character to speak for themselves.
Real-life speech vs. prose
One of your jobs as a creative writer is to mimic speech. In real life we repeat ourselves, trail off, pause and add ‘errs’. With close friends and family, we speak in short-hand. It would be tedious if you were to transcribe speech as it actually is, yet for the reader to believe in your characters you must find the middle ground. If you want a masterclass in dialogue that seems real yet moves the plot on and shows us character, pick any of Douglas Adams’ books.
Dialogue shows us who a character is.
Imagine you are speaking to someone on the phone. From someone’s voice we gain an incredible amount of information. We learn, or make guesses, about their:
Attitude towards us and others
Status to us and others
Education and class.
The most important two of these for creative writing is ATTITUDE and STATUS. If you understand these two things about your characters you will be able to create interesting dynamic dialogue. Status change is particularly interesting to read – a high character brought low or vice versa. A great book to read about status interplay is ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone.
Dialogue checklist for Editing
When writing or editing dialogue, you need to think about what you want the speech to do, and what you don’t want it to do.
Here’s a quick checklist, you can use when thinking about your dialogue.
Moves the plot forward in terms of information
Shows character traits and attitudes
Shows status and attitudes of characters to one another
Can reference motif (see earlier blog post)
Leaves things unsaid which we know the character is thinking.
Incorporates short-hand between characters who are close.
Tells the reader what they already know
Mimics real speech too much or not enough
Gives the reader no new information about character or plot
Is too explicit
Only uses one register (everyone sounds the same)