Most of us know that if we want our characters to leap off the page into our readers’ heads, we need to put them into action rather than describe their traits.It’s all in showing rather than telling: we show what they do, rather than tell what they are like. We put them in situations where our reader sees them through the eyes of their friends and enemies – the way they look physically and how others register their behavior.
One of the best ways to bring out character is dialogue, a technique which terrifies many beginners.
“I’m terrible at dialogue,” they moan; “Mine always sounds so wooden!”(You can see how my dialogues suffer from italics and exclamation marks!)
This is an area of writing where we learn to swim by plunging right in. Try some creative eavesdropping, noting exactly what people say to each other.
“Billy, have you washed your hands for supper yet?”
“Yeah, just did it.”
“He didn’t, Ma, he walked right past the bathroom when he came in from the yard.”
“I hate you right back.”
“You children get in here: all of you. Now”
Notice there are no “he saids” or “she saids” in everyday conversation; avoid these tags if it is clear who is speaking.
Here’s what I overheard from the row behind me at a bookstore reading:
“I just love minestrone. That’s all I dream of, minestrone. Do you have any idea how to cook minestrone?
“Sure. I hung out at the bookstore and copied it from a cookbook. It worked out great. I served it with heavy cream and portobello mushrooms.”
“But you don’t get fat. I would swell right up and get gross if I ate that kind of stuff.”
“How can I get fat? I run five miles a day.”
(As it happens, I had never heard people converse that way; this was my very first overheard foodie-talk.)
When the editor of my first novel said that I needed a better balance between dialogue and action, I studied up on dialogue punctuation and then plunged right in. Once I got going, it was like eating peanuts — lots of fun to write. Pretty soon, my dialogue began to belt along nicely, carrying my plot with it.
Give it a try!