Dialogue that Dances

Cynthia Ruchti

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Dancing dialogue does double-duty. It ramps up tension and reveals character.

How can dialogue move from “lying on the couch” to “dancing with the stars”?Dialogue that dances

Do away with most space-fillers.

They don’t accomplish the casual or hesitant feel you’re going for as well as you might expect.

WEAK: “Um…well…huh…you see…I wasn’t sure…um…that you’d let me in if I knocked.”

STRONGER: “I wasn’t sure”–David toed the carpet at his feet–“you’d let me in if I knocked.”

Use action beats to strengthen lines of dialogue and keep the reader rooted in which character’s talking.

WEAK: “If the apple harvest fails us again this year, we’re not likely to get another business loan,” he said.

STRONGER: Stan sliced into a Cortland apple and dug at a worm with the tip of his knife. “If the apple harvest fails us again this year, we’re not likely to get another business loan.

Pay attention to paragraphing rules related to dialogue.

Don’t let your reader get lost in a maze of characters and their words. Each character’s lines of dialogue and actions deserve a paragraph of their own. It’s one of the ways readers keep track of who’s doing the talking and who’s taking the action.

dialogue danceCONFUSING: Sheila turned to look at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Ruby balled her hands into fists that pounded her thighs. “You’re jealous?” she said. “You?”

CLEAR: Sheila turned to look at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Ruby balled her hands into fists that pounded her thighs.

“You’re jealous?” she said. “You?”

(That’s making the assumption that Sheila is the one asking if the how silent Ruby is jealous. But here’s another possibility:)

Sheila turned to look at her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ruby balled her hands into fists that pounded her thighs. “You’re jealous?” she said. “You?”

(In this case, Ruby’s doing all the talking. The dialogue is in “her” paragraph. But there’s another option:)

Sheila turned to look at her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ruby balled her hands into fists that pounded her thighs.

“You’re jealous?” she said. “You?”

(There’s still another option, but you can see that how the paragraphs are divided can either clear or muddy the reader’s question, “Who’s saying that?”)

Ask yourself what each line of dialogue accomplishes.

If the answer is nothing, consider removing it or rewording. Dialogue should show us something about the characters, advance the plot, or either increase or decrease tension. Even small talk in books can be important. But only include the small talk if it is important.

Make dialogue feel more authentic by eliminating what’s already understood.

Many writers feel compelled to start every phone conversation with “Hello. How are you?” or “Hi, Gina. This is Shirley.” If Shirley is Gina’s best friend, they know the sound of each other’s voice. And today, it’s likely they know whose calling by the ringtone or caller ID.

WEAK: “Hello, Jack? This is Sam.”

“Hi, Sam. How are you doing?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Doing pretty well, all things considered. What can I do for you?”

“Jack, I need a favor. And it’s a big one.”

STRONG: “Jack? I need a favor. A big one.”

Create stronger character-revealing dialogue through what you don’t say.

 dialogue dances

Subtext is invisible, but it’s often the strongest communicator on the page.

WEAK: “I thought you’d be home for dinner at six. You promised,” Carol said.

“Yes, well, I know I promised. But you know how it is. I was delayed. I’m here now. What did you make?”

Carol sighed. “Beef stew and garlic toast.”

“Let’s eat.”

STRONG: “I thought you’d be home for dinner at six. You said six.” Carol glanced at the clock as if it might have lied to her before.

“Couldn’t be helped.”

“Is your phone acting up? Again?” Carol slammed the bowl of stew on the counter and grabbed her keys from the hook by the door.

“What did you make?”

Carol sighed. “A plan.”

Dialogue that dances, sings, propels the story forward can compel the reader to keep reading. What have you learned that has helped strengthen dialogue in your writing?

CLICK TO TWEET: How can dialogue move from “lying on the couch” to “dancing with the stars”?