Writing Dialogue with Tension

Writing dialogue takes skill, but it's not difficult to improve poor dialogue and use good dialogue to quicken the pace of a story, create tension, deepen characterization, and move the plot forward. If dialogue does not accomplish all this, it has no place in the story.

Strong verbal exchanges between characters heighten reader interest. When characters talk, readers listen, and the characters take on qualities of real people. The writer's challenge is to sustain this illusion of reality. Anything that reminds readers of words on a page must be edited out so readers will think about the characters, not the writing.

Writing dialogue with tension

Dialogue without tension is boring and ineffective. Readers may overlook an occasional short passage that lacks tension, but they won't have patience for much. Consider the following exchange:

"Hi Peter."

"Hi, Anna."

"What are you doing, Peter?"

"I'm listening to a lecture on popular culture on my iPod."

"Oh. That sounds interesting. Can I listen too?"

"Sure, give me a minute. When the lecture ends, you can use my headphones to hear the whole thing."

"Thanks, Peter."

"No problem, Anna."

Writing dialogue like this will never get you published. It is painful to read for many reasons:

  • We learn little about the characters
  • the characters overuse names
  • the dialogue includes unnecessary niceties and formality
  • the sentences are too long in places
  • most importantly, it lacks tension

The one and only opportunity to create tension comes when Anna asks if she can listen to the lecture. Anna wants something. This creates a small measure of tension as the reader waits to learn if she will get what she wants. Peter's response, however, eliminates the tension before it amounts to anything when he agrees to share the lecture when he is finished with it.

Revised version:

"Hey, Peter. What's that?"

Peter raises his index finger to his lips and points at his IPod. "I don't want to miss anything."

"What is it?"

Eyes closed, he tilts his head back to rest against the wall that braces his back.

Anna raises her voice. "Did you hear me?"

He opens his eyes only to narrow them at her. "Go away."

"I want to listen."

"Beat it, I said."

This dialogue could be improved, but Peter's frustrated desire for quiet creates tension between the characters. Underlying that is the reader's desire to understand the relationship between Peter and Anna. Are they siblings? If so, why does he act as he does?

Not knowing creates tension that will last until the reader has answers. Readers will also react to what they know about the characters. Peter's response to Anna lacks generosity, so readers don't know yet whether he is a sympathetic character or a villain. They need more information, and that need creates another thread of uncertainty and tension.

Writing dialogue that avoids filler words

Humans often use filler words such as um, uh, like, or uh huh, but put these words in the mouths of characters and the fictional illusion crumbles.

Writing dialogue with modern language

In the opening line of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice , Jane Austin writes:

"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

This line worked just fine in 1813, but we don’t talk like that anymore. Avoid words like "my dear," and "his lady." Avoid lest, behoves, tomfoolery, balderdash, and the like. Use current language. Even when a character would speak in an old-fashioned manner, be careful. The occasional archaic word characterizes, but too many cause readers to think about the words, not the story.

Avoid writing dialogue that overuses names

In the 2008 US presidential campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin made news in her interview with Charlie Gibson for overusing his name. During the interview, Palin called Gibson "Charlie" so often that she became a target of parody.

Overuse of a name smacks of insincerity, and the overuse becomes especially obvious and unnatural in fictional dialogue. So while it is fine to write, "Thank you, Charlie. I appreciate that," you would do yourself no favour to write, "Thank you, Charlie. I appreciate that. By the way, Charlie, now that I have you here, what do you think of the Bush Doctrine."

Writing dialogue that avoids expository telling

Inexperienced writers use expository dialogue to summarize information for the reader's benefit. This information is disguised as dialogue between characters that would already know the facts.

Imagine two brothers. One of them says, "Do you remember mother's last boyfriend, Jack Smart, who sold medical equipment in British Columbia, until he was charged with fraud, and who had a daughter Jackie, who studied at Yale?"

I've exaggerated this to make the problem more obvious, but much subtler attempts sound equally strange and unnatural to readers. A more natural exchange would deliver the same information bit by bit and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

Revised version:

Allan flicked the newspaper Peter hid behind. "Remember Jack Smart?"

"Mom wants to forget that jerk, not me."

"He was charged with fraud. I saw an article about it in the Vancouver Sun."

Peter lowered the sports page. "What'd he do, sell the same MRI machine to two hospitals?"

"He stole Jackie's Ph.D. diploma. Tried to pass it off as his own."

Peter shaped his fingers into bookends and drew them apart in the air. "I can see the headline. Dummy, Jack Smart, Pilfers Daughter's Degree. Who'd be stupid enough to believe he went to Yale?"

Don’'t put all the information out at once. Slow down. Trust readers to "read between the lines." It's natural to write passages of expository dialogue in a first draft, and you'll identify them soon enough if you read your work aloud. Then you can correct them.

Use the Rule of Twelve

Grab your favourite novel and find a passage of dialogue. Any passage. The first one you see is fine. Now count the words between punctuation marks. You'll seldom find more than twelve.

We speak in short bursts of words, and your characters should do the same. If you find longer phrases and clauses in your dialogue, shorten them. Use twelve as a maximum, and aim for exchanges of half that many words to keep dialogue terse and crisp.

Writing Dialogue that uses distinct voices

Readers should have no trouble distinguishing one character from another according to what each character says and how he or she says it, just as we can recognize our friends by their attitudes and speech mannerisms.

One friend may use humour more than the others; another is brash and lacks tact. One speaks with bravado and overconfidence while another is hesitant. One is self absorbed, and another often generous. Take note of each character's unique weaknesses and virtues, and allow his or her quirks of personality to shine through as you write dialogue.

Writing dialogue that "shows" rather than "tells"

How often have you seen speaker attributions (also known as dialogue tags) that end in adverbs?

"Get it," he said angrily.

I'm not ready," she said grouchily.

"Pretend I'm not here," she said cheerily.

Writers use this sort of speaker attribution as a shortcut, to tell readers what a character feels because telling is always easier than showing. Showing is a mark of good writing. Telling is not.

Eliminate adverbs and show emotions instead. "Get it," he said angrily, is better written as "Get the damn thing," he said. Or better yet:

He slapped his mammoth palm on the table with a force that rattled the plates, but when he spoke she had to lean forward to hear him. "Get it now."

The last version has an ominous tone, and readers will recognize anger in the character's actions—no telling necessary.

How would you show grouchiness? What about a cheery disposition? Showing will never be as easy as telling, but your goal is to put readers as close to the action as possible, so they feel the table shake with the character's anger. You can't do that with, he said, angrily.

Another lazy version of telling avoids the adverb and replaces "said" with a verb meant to tell what should be shown.

"I wanted it hours ago," he roared.

"We have it in thirty colours," she smiled.

"I bet you do," she giggled.

How does one giggle something? Or smile a sentence? Avoid this sort of telling. If you want a character to smile, have her smile. Write:

"We have it in thirty colours." She smiled and pushed the sample swatches across the table. "Not all of them are attractive, but there's plenty of choice."

Writing Dialogue that employs variety

"Said" is often the best choice for dialogue tags because used in moderation, readers glide by "said" without noticing it. It's invisible, as "he chortled" will never be invisible. Use too many of them in succession, however, and "said" is no better than the verbs I suggested you avoid.

Repeated, told, explained, advised, and remarked, are all verbs that won't attract attention. Nevertheless, replacing "said" with an assortment of verbs is unnecessary if you write in such a way that readers understand which character speaks.

If doing so will create no confusion, use no dialogue tag at all. When you need clarification, use a beat of character action.

The result would be something like this passage from A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry:

"Hi, what's new?" He slapped Maneck's back affectionately.

"This game."

"Playing alone?"

"No, with me." Maneck toppled his own king.

"Haven't seen you much lately. Aren't you curious about what’s been happening?"

"You mean in college?"

"Yes—and everywhere else, since the Emergency was declared."

"Oh, that." Maneck made an indifferent face. "I don’t know much about those things."

Dialogue like this increases the pace of a novel, as everything is shown in real-time with very little to slow the dialogue or get in the way of the reader's immersion.

Now compare that to another passage from the same novel:

"Yeats?" guessed Maneck.

The proofreader nodded, "You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair." He paused, considering what he had just said. "Yes," he repeated. "In the end, it's all a question of balance."

Maneck nodded. "All the same, you must have missed your work very much."

"Well, not really," he dismissed the sympathy. "Not the work itself. Most of the stuff in the newspaper was pure garbage. A great quantity of that which entered through the windows of my soul was quickly evacuated by the trapdoor."

This seemed to Maneck to contradict what the man had said earlier. Perhaps the lawyer behind the proofreader was still active, able to argue both sides of the question.

"A few good things I kept, and I still have them." The proofreader tapped audibly, first on his forehead, then on his plastic pen case. "No rubbish or bats in my belfry—no dried-up pens in my pocket-case."

This excerpt reads slower. The sentences are longer, and the author skilfully uses a couple of appropriate verbs for speaker attributions. He makes good use of introspection and action. In the next few lines Mistry also uses the word "said" twice, so the passage provides an excellent example of how to attribute dialogue to characters using a variety of techniques.

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