Though we don’t usually need a lot going on outside the dialogue itself, it often feels static or otherwise unnatural if you have a entire conversation with dialogue, a few tags, and nothing else.
But we never want to add extra words for the sake of just having words. Everything we write should contribute to the story in some form or another.
So how do we make dialogue feel more natural by adding useful words outside the dialogue?
First off, we have to remember a key point about dialogue: Dialogue needs to have emotion and intention. There should be something the characters want to get out of the conversation, whether that’s an external plot objective like ‘learn why the birds are dying’ or ‘get Liz to ask me to the dance’ or an internal, even subconscious, desire like ‘feel better after an argument’ or ‘convince myself I have friends.’ The more personal the goal and the more emotionally invested in it the character is, the more impact the dialogue will have when you include these concepts:
1. Setting and activity.
Giving your characters something to do or interact with while they talk is a fantastic way to both flesh out the scene in the reader’s mind and emphasize the character’s emotions.
An angry character might wash the dishes so hard they chip the side as they set a plate down. A frustrated character might pick apart a leaf as they walk through the woods. A nervous character might refold the same clothing over and over again. A happy character might balance along the length of a small wall (and then fall when their companion says something alarming.)
Keep in mind that it’s the portrayal of the emotions through the characters interaction with the setting that makes these non-dialogue segments feel like a natural part of the scene. What you’re essentially doing is binding the setting to the dialogue through emotion.
2. Internal monologue.
When we have everyday conversations, we tend to one of two things: focus on the person talking or think about when we’re going to say next. Characters in stories should not be doing these things very often because they should not be having everyday conversations very often. Characters should spend the majority of their dialogue time pursuing difficult to achieve external or internal goals.
They should be having the sort of conversations that force them to:
These kind of conversations force people to start thinking as they talk, either rationally to work through problems or through the sort of intense emotion that bubbles out or shuts the speaker down.
The end result of internal monologue should not be to recap anything being said, but to show a fuller picture of it — a fuller picture from our pov character’s perspective, anyway.
3. Expression and body language.
Not only should your point of view character experience emotion, so should the other characters present in the conversation. Unless these characters are skilled at hiding their feelings — which is worth describing all on its own — that emotion filters into their expression and body language.
Many writers tend to overdo the same few expressions and body movements in the rough draft stages (if I don’t watch it, my characters will nod their heads clean off), but it’s much better to pick and chose these strategically, to determine which expressions and body language contribute to the reader’s understand of the conversation and the characters involved, and leave the others out.
4. Physical emotional sensations.
Whenever you have high emotions within a scene, your characters will feel the physical manifestations of these emotions. These are not your bread and butter of anything though. They should be nicely spaced out and not too repetitive — if your pov character alternates between a feeling something in their stomach and their heart every other page of the story then they don’t have emotions, they just have indigestion and heart palpitations.
But physical sensations brought on by emotions should still exist, even in dialogue segments, so don’t forget about them entirely!
5. Exposition… or should we say, expositionot. (That’s not even a real pun, I’m sorry.)
What we don’t want to be doing is halting the progression of the dialogue to suddenly explain something that was mentioned within the dialogue itself.
Instead of Mai telling Joon that the Council of Eves is meeting tonight and the scene pausing to explain what the Council of Eves is, we want to imply the information through the dialogue and show Mai and Joon’s personal frustration with the council.
There is also an art to writing the kind of dialogue where the dialogue speaks for itself. Some masterfully done books thrive off this kind of tag-less back and forth dialogue.
The reason they work is often that the writer takes all the emotion and action that would naturally happen along with the dialogue and builds it like layers into the words themselves. In order to become truly good at that kind of dialogue, most writers have to master the inclusion of other variables first.
Want to read about a bloodthirsty siren fighting to return home while avoiding the lure of a suspiciously friendly and eccentric pirate captain? You can purchase Bryn’s debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl, today!