Last week, we looked at a simple exchange of dialog in PieceA:
“Jane? What are you doing tomorrow night?” said Albert.
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
“Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
“Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight,” said Albert.
Then added action to it in PieceB:
“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across uneven teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.
Do you see the shift? What are the major differences between the two pieces? Setting, personal preferences, characterization? PieceA has none of these things, which makes it sound flat and boring. PieceB tells us that Jane and Albert are probably in a restaurant, that Albert likes Jane, but Jane doesn’t necessarily feel the same way.
How do we know this? Let’s look at one line of Jane’s dialog, from both pieces.
A) “Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
B) Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
How do these sound to you? The same? Probably not. The first could sound like anything. Jane could be nervous, excited without wanting to look excited, scared, horrified, anything. There are no clues to tell us what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. The second piece gives us the clues we need, so it’s easier for her voice to fill our heads.
This is tone. Action sets the character’s tone of voice. An annoyed person will do things like shift her weight, not make eye contact, sigh loudly, etc. So if we see her doing these kind of things, then we’ll hear the annoyance in her voice when she speaks (check out The Bookshelf Muse for an excellent Emotion Thesaurus; it illustrates actions associated with certain emotions). If the character isn’t doing anything, there’s no tone and the character sounds flat and lifeless. Tone, combined with the right choice of words, is what gives dialog authenticity, or, what makes it ring true.
A writer could study today’s teenagers – i.e. visit shopping malls, movie theaters, and other teen haunts - write down everything she hears, use it in dialog, and it could still sound forced, flat and false. It all depends on what the teenagers are doing. If what they do matches up with their personalities and the dialog, then you’ve got well-written dialog, with clear tone, that rings with authenticity.
“But,” you say. “Aren’t you missing something here?”
I surely am! Thanks for pointing that out. :) You probably picked up on that when I mentioned the Emotion Thesaurus, because the missing element is emotion! Without it, you've got nothing. Emotion works behind the scenes of Action. It’s the driving force, sets the direction, and ultimately sets the tone. So, once you’ve identified the appropriate emotions for a particular scene, then chosen the resulting actions and words, you’ve got yourself a stunning set of dialog.
Once again, this post has gotten quite long. And, once again, I haven’t covered everything. How do we know who’s speaking? How long should an exchange of dialog be? And, do we have to include everything? Those topics, and probably more, will come next week.