Making sure your characters’ language makes an impact
Imagine an agent looking for the next big thing. She sits down with her coffee and red pen and flips open a fresh manuscript to the following interaction:
The phone rang. “Hello,” answered Don.
“Hi, is Mark there?” said a voice.
“Sure, who’s calling?”
“This is Sam,” he said.
Mark put down the phone and yelled: “Mark! Phone!”
Mark walked down the hall and picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi Mark, this is Sam,” said Sam.
“Hey Sam, how’s it going?” said Mark.
“Pretty good, how are you?”
“So what’s up?”
The agent has already tossed this in the circular file, a.k.a. “shit can” (if she even got this far!).
The point is, make your dialogue SAY something. I’m not suggesting that the above isn’t how people actually communicate-we do talk about nothing, all the time. We all go through a hundred mundane communication pleasantries a week. But when you’re telling a story, this kind of exchange tells us nothing except character’s names and perhaps that Mark and Don live together.
Dialogue should reveal character or plot. If you’re going to bother with all that formatting (quotation marks, end punctuation, dialogue attribution tags, and new paragraphs for each speaker), you might as well tell your reader something significant.
Check out this revision:
The phone rang. Don picked it up. “New York Pizza, how can I feed you?”
“Hey Don, it’s Sam. Put Mark on.”
Don straightened up when he heard his boss’s voice. “Hold on, I’ll check for him in back.”
Don covered the mouth of the phone. -Hey, have you seen Mark yet?” he asked George, who was working the pizza oven.
“If I’d seen that jerk, I’d be out-my shift ended twenty minutes ago,” George said.
“Sorry Sam, Mark’s not in yet.”
“That’s the sixth time this month. Tell him to call me so I can fire his ass.” Sam hung up.
This rewrite gives us setting through dialogue, as well as shows relationships between characters. We also learn about Mark through what other characters say about him, and Don’s character comes through in his hard language. Plot also moves forward because the reader learns Mark is now out of a job.
Try to make each bit of dialogue help paint the picture through what is being said.
MARIE VALENTINE has edited diverse writers, from poets to romance novelists to engineers; her clients are often first-time authors and include mystery authors, Air Force pilots, family historians, and even a self-published congressman. Her experience as a business journalist and small press editor influences her professional work.