Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“How are you?”

Chances are you've had this conversation or heard one similar to it:

"How are you?" she asked
"I'm fine. How are you?" he said.
I'm fine. Good to see you again."
"Good seeing you, too."
This is polite conversation. This is not dialog.
"Why not?" you may ask.
"Because, dear writer," I answer while removing my reading glasses. "it will bore your poor reader to tears."
Dialog in fiction is not just conversation. Good dialog has purpose. It moves a scene forward, gives insight into a character, shows relationships, or creates suspense. The simple passage above doesn't do any of those things.
Let's change it a little:
"How are you?"
"I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"
"It's good to see you again."
"Yeah. Great. Just wonderful."
The "why wouldn't I be?" creates a little bit of tension and tells us something of the relationship between the characters.

Let's try again:
"How are you?"
"I'm fine. Just fine. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Yes. Why wouldn't you be?"
"You tell me."
Uncomfortable? Good. You get the sense that these two have a past. Not a pleasant one.

Sometimes, dialog can be oblique, two people talking past each other:
"How have you been? "
"I can't stay."
Notice he didn't answer the question. Makes you a little curious, doesn't it? What's going on?

Let's try once more:
"How have you been?
"Better now that you're here. Much better."
"It's great to see you."
"Yes. It is. Life is great."
This is a different sort of reunion from the ones above, isn't it?

You can also use dialog to further plot:
"I think I felt a drop. Is it raining?"
Where this story goes next might depend on his answer:
"Well. It's been good seeing you again."
"I have an umbrella. I can share."
"I know a place, dry, great coffee. What do you say?"
Each of these move the story in a slightly different direction.

 How is your dialog? Here's a quick check you can do to make sure it's doing its job:
Does it start or heighten conflict?
Does it create tension?
Does it make the reader curious?
Does it tell something about the character? About relationships between characters?
Does it turn or change the events of the story?
You should be able to answer yes to at least one of these.

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