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The Power of Dialogue: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The Power of Dialogue

The key to introducing your characters to the reader is through powerful dialogue. The words people use and the actions that accompany them paints a more vivid picture than just telling your reader about the character. Dialogue is mainly used in fiction and memoir, but non-fiction books can utilize it as well when sharing various examples. Let’s take a look at this in action.

Telling About the Situation

When my daughter was in the 4th grade, one day she came out of the school at the end of the day, very upset that one of the kids in her class told the teacher she was cheating. Trying to be a reassuring mother, I explained that her actions throughout the school year have demonstrated to the teacher her character; and that the accusations of one child will be tested against the truth as well as against who people know her to be.

As the reader, you can tell there is a mother and a daughter, a classmate who accused the daughter of cheating and a teacher – but the whole thing is pretty flat. On top of the fact it is pretty boring, what do you really know about the mom or the daughter? Is the daughter one who might cheat? How trustworthy is the whistleblower?

The Dialogue that Defines the Interaction

By added dialogue and actions, you can develop a new depth to the characters.

I love meeting my daughter in the pick-up line at the end of the school day. She usually comes bounding out with a big smile on her face and stories of the lessons she learned. Today was different. There was no bounding and no smile…but I am sure I will get the full story on the way home.

“Hi sweetie. What’s going on? You don’t seem very happy. Did something happen at school today?”

“I am so mad.” she exclaimed with her hands clenched tightly in a fist. 

It took me all I had not to chuckle out loud because she very rarely gets this upset about anything. At the same time, I was concerned about whatever it was that had worked my precious daughter up into such a tizzy.

“When we got our tests back today, Anna saw that I got a 100% and she got mad at me. It isn’t my fault she got a 72% on her test. She started teasing me because I got them all right, and then said she was going to tell Ms. Kettleman that I cheated on the test. She gave me this mean look, walked up to the teacher and told her that I cheated on the test…and I didn’t Mom! REALLY…I didn’t!” she rambled as her anger turned to tears.

“Oh, Baby Girl, I am so sorry she said this about you. I know you studied really hard for that test, too. What was Ms. Kettleman’s reaction?”

“She just kind of ignored Anna. But I don’t want her to think that I cheated on the test, because I didn’t!”

“I get it. Can I ask you a question? What did you get on your last 3 tests in Ms. Kettleman’s class?”

“A 95%…{sniffle}…a 100%…{sniffle}…and a 97%.” she answered.

“Ok, so getting a 100% is in line with who Ms. Kettleman knows you to be and how you usually score on your tests, correct?”

“Yea.”

“And I have heard you tell stories before about Anna tattling and telling lies about other classmates, correct?”

“Yea, but mom, I DIDN’T CHEAT!!!”

“I believe you. My guess is that Ms. Kettleman believes you, too. It sounds like both you and Anna are being consistent in your actions.”

So, after reading that dialogue, you have a better understanding of who each one of the players are. You even gain a better understanding of the relationship between the mom and the daughter. The threat and mean look from Anna might even remind you of a kid you knew in elementary school. Through the dialogue you can actually feel the emotion. You can sense the little girl was distressed and upset because we found out she was crying and her hands were clenched. 

Tips to Writing Powerful Dialogue

Now that we understand the impact you can have with  well written dialogue, let’s take a look at some tips to writing better dialogue.

1. Get your Characters Talking

I know that seems redundant, but dialogue is just that…a conversation between two or more people. It is through their interactions is where you will be able to develop and share the true characteristics of the characters

2. Write the Way People Speak 

In real life, people don’t always talk in full sentences and they interrupt each other. So in order to make the dialogue more believable, write it like people say it!

3. Speak the Dialogue Outloud

It is important to actually read the dialogue out loud to make sure it flows the way you intend it to. You can do this during editing, or even while you are actually writing it!

4. Use Dialogue Tags Intentionally

And then he said…and she said…and then he said… ENOUGH ALREADY!! In writing dialogue, first of all, you don’t always need to use a dialogue tag. If the words you use in the conversation are strong enough in relaying the tone and who is speaking, a dialogue tag isn’t necessary. If you are going to use one, choose one that is more descriptive than “said.” You can use words like, replied, answered, whispered, coaxed, spat, etc. Check out this link for a great list of alternatives.

5. Use Slang Sparingly

Be cautious in using slang. If it is a slang term that is fairly common; or if you can define it in the surrounding text, then you are good to go. However, if the slang term is going to leave the reader confused, don’t use it. This holds true for writing to capture a native dialect as well.

6. Use Dialogue to Show Growth in Your Characters

As your story continues, remember your characters change. Make sure that you share that change with your reader. Include the growth or deterioration that they experience by a change in the words they use and how they interact with the other characters in your story.

 

In the moral of the story with my daughter – actions speak louder than words. That is also true when it comes to introducing and defining the characters for your readers. The key is to describe your characters through their actions and reactions to one another. That way the reader can experience them, and not just take your word for it. It is time to get your characters to do some talking through powerful dialogue!

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