National Novel Writing Month is over, and now you’re left with (hopefully) 50,000 words, dark circles under your eyes, and a caffeine addiction.
Hey, you earned it.
You’ve poured everything into this novel, and now it’s time to take what you have and make it better. One of the best places to start is with dialogue.
Many authors shove in a few “he sighed” and “she shrugged” tags and call it a day. Overuse these, and your readers will be sighing and shrugging too.
You’ll notice that in good dialogue, it’s more than just conversation. It’s emotion. To make emotion strong in dialogue, a writer must describe his setting, depict moods, and detail the physical signals of his characters.
I chose five emotions to beef up:
Using your setting is an excellent way to evoke fear in the reader. Edgar Allan Poe accomplished this in The Pit and the Pendulum. Describe the mood of a scene and detail how your character would react. Oh, and you guessed it: show, don’t tell.
Daniel was afraid. He was more than afraid; he was frozen in fear.
“Are you all right?” a patient asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He faked a smile.
“You look like you could use some food.”
He shrugged, beads of sweat forming on his lip. “N-no, I’m okay.”
The hospital reeked of bleach, causing a stomach-churning sensation that Daniel hated. His shoulders were tight, and he kept them glued to the milky-white wall in the waiting room. A nurse raced past him, and he jerked, forcing a watery smile.
“Are you all right?” a patient asked, approaching him cautiously.
Tendons stood out in Daniel’s neck, but his voice was light. “Y-yes, I’m fine.”
The patient gave him a reassuring pat on his stiff shoulders. “You look like you could use some food.”
“That’s not all I could use.” His voice cracked, and he turned his head, the panic pushing up his body, absorbing him. Daniel balled his fists, and his knuckles went white. As he began to shake, he counted to soothe his mind: One, two, three…
The reader gets the sense that Daniel is afraid without the narrator ever mentioning fear.
Not to be confused with being anxious, eagerness depicts enthusiasm for what’s to come.
Arnold felt like a million bucks. He was excited, happy, and ready to take on the world. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife the good news, but she was on the phone.
“I’ve got great news!” Arnold yelled.
Diana was on the phone, so he waited very impatiently.
Arnold raced into the house, leaving the door wide open behind him. He skidded to a halt, calling for Diana.
“Baby, baby!” He rubbed his hands together. “Boy, have I got some—”
“Not now, Arnold!” Diana shushed him, waving him off.
His eyes were glowing, and he sat down on an old chair, his butt just barely hanging off the edge. “Hon,” he whispered. “It’s big news! You gotta hang up!” He clutched his hands together and blew out a long breath. He rocked back and forth, his heels tapping the tile floor.
Annoyed by his incessant clamor, Diana hung up the phone. “Arnold, now that was Lucille, and she was trying to talk me through—”
“I got the job, babe!” He jumped out of the rickety chair, pulling his wife close for a celebratory kiss.
We get the sense of impatience here through Arnold’s mannerisms, indicating the eagerness in his voice.
Here’s when the sighing comes in, as if characters, when sad, can only sigh. Some of us do different things when we’re sad, and you will need to take this in to account when demonstrating sadness through your characters’ expressions. One character might have an empty stare, while another might have wet, dull eyes.
When Jane heard the bad news, she cried for hours. No one could console her.
Her friend knocked on her door. “Jane? It’s me.”
“Did you lock the door? Let me in.”
“Just leave me alone!” Jane yelled, sniffling.
Jane dug through her purse, searching for tissues but found only a crumpled, used one. She brought her sleeve to her nose, wiping her tears on the cheap cotton. A streak of black mascara ran down her sleeve, and she thought about the accident and the tattoos the tires had left on Ocean Drive.
A gentle knock woke her from her trance. “Jane? It’s me.”
Jane drew her legs to her chest, turning her head away from the door. “Go away,” she mumbled.
“I’m not going to go away.” The knob turned, but the door stayed closed. “Really? You locked it?”
Jane gulped the air. “Please just leave me alone. I don’t want to talk.”
She watched the footsteps under the door as they faded away. She brought her face to her knees and melted into her misery.
The topic of love brings about many emotions, melodrama being one of them. You shouldn’t have to exaggerate in dialogue to prove your point. Be realistic.
Cliff embraced her. He thought about her when he went to sleep and when he woke up.
“I can’t live without you, Donna.”
She blushed. “And I can’t live without you.”
“Is there something you wanted to tell me?” he asked, grinning wide.
“Yes. I love you, Cliff!”
He brought her hands to his chest. “Oh, Donna! I have always loved you.”
“How come you never tell me any of your secrets?” Cliff asked, playfully jabbing her as they walked hand-in-hand.
“I don’t have any secrets,” Donna said, darting a quick glance at him.
“Psh!” Cliff raised his eyes to the sky. “Everybody has secrets.”
Nervous laughter escaped her lips, and she slowed her pace. “I guess maybe I have one.”
His dimples brought an unexpected glow to her cheeks, and she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “Can you guess what it is?”
He scratched the back of his neck, feigning bewilderment. “Gee, Donna. I give up. What could it be?” He squeezed her hand.
Donna’s heart banged like a drum, and she was sure he could hear it. “I love you.”
“He gasped!” Didn’t see that one comin’. Melodrama can also be an issue with this emotion.
“I need to tell you something, Dad.” Amy seemed serious.
“What is it, sweetheart?” he asked.
“I don’t know how to tell you.”
“Just say it.”
“I’m going to jail,” she said.
Rick was shocked. His jaw dropped, and his hand flew to his chest.
Amy glanced over at her father as he sat in his favorite recliner. She shuffled into the living room and cleared her throat. “Dad?”
Rick looked up from his newspaper. “Yeah, sweetheart?”
Doubt crept into her conscious, and she tried to shake it off. “I, uh, need to tell you something.”
Rick set down the newspaper, focusing his attention on his daughter. “I’m all ears.”
“I’ll just say it then.” She swallowed hard and bit the inside of her cheek. “I’m going to jail, Dad.”
His eyes bulged, and he gripped the newspaper. A look of confusion swelled in his rugged face, and his muscles tightened. “You what now?”
She broadened her shoulders. “I’m going to jail.”
A sudden coldness in his gut struck him. Tensing his body even tighter, he tried to register her words. “Jail?”
She nodded. “Please let me explain. It’s about Marie.”
Rick let go of the ball of paper, relaxing his shoulders. “Does your mother know?”
Dialogue, as mentioned earlier, is so much more than just conversation. Work with your settings, use props, like the newspaper, and study body language. Dialogue is an art. Grab your tools, study the craft, and create a masterpiece.
An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.