Wednesday, March 23

The Right Time to Speak: Proper Dialogue Placement

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dialogue is one of the first things I write in any scene, so it’s only natural that it gets moved around a lot in revisions. I want it to have the right impact, the right flow, lead into the right bit of description or internal thought. Sometimes moving around the dialogue makes the difference between a good scene and a flat scene. When we say something can be just as important as what we say.

That Doesn’t Sound Right 

I ran into one of these moments while working on a new novel. It was a snippet between one of my POV characters (the heir to the throne) and his uncle (the current regent). They were talking about a peace treaty between them and a former enemy. Let’s take a peek:
“They may not want it renewed.” He shook his head. “With your ascension next week, they might be rethinking our peace.”

It made no sense. The war between Doratnu and Terzet had been over for decades. For some, a lifetime. “You don’t rethink peace. You either want it or you don’t.”

“It’s not always that simple.”


I really love the line, “you don’t rethink peace,” but it’s just hanging there on the end. Too much happens between the uncle’s line and what the heir says, especially since the heir’s line is a direct response to the uncle’s statement. So I switched it.
“They may not want it renewed.” He shook his head. “With your ascension next week, they might be rethinking our peace.”

“You don’t rethink peace. You either want it or you don’t.” It made no sense. The war between Doratnu and Terzet had been over for decades. For some, a lifetime.

“It’s not always that simple.”
To me, this flows a lot better because the great “immediate reaction” line comes right after the line that inspires it. It also allows for some internal thought afterward to mull the idea over, which works better to act as a dramatic pause before, “It’s not always that simple.” It puts it closer to the idea of war, which implies that war is also never that simple. It lets it carry more thematic weight than a casual line spoke immediately after.

A Quick Response 

It’s not uncommon to see a lot of text between one character asking a question or making a statement and another character responding to it, especially in an early draft. But these are spots that can often be tightened or adjusted to get more punch for your words.

Imagine hearing those words spoken. Heck, actually read them out loud. Would they sound better if the phrases were one right after the other, like a quick snappy retort? Look at any spots that feels a little slow to you but you’re not sure why. There’s a good chance your dialogue is in the wrong spot, and simply moving your question/response pairs closer together will solve the lag.

A Dramatic Pause 

The reverse is also true. If you want to give the sense that time passes, even if it’s just a few seconds, splitting dialogue can give that feel. Red flags to look for here are words like “at last” or “finally.”
It made no sense. The war between Doratnu and Terzet had been over for decades. For some, a lifetime. “You don’t rethink peace. You either want it or you don’t.”

Uncle sighed. “It’s not always that simple,” he said at last.
Here, the response is spoken right away, so you don’t get the sense that there was any pause to warrant an “at last” tag. It needs some indication that time did indeed pass and the protag was waiting on hearing the other person speak.
“You don’t rethink peace. You either want it or you don’t, right?”

Uncle sighed and glanced away, staring out the window. Did he know something I didn’t? It made no sense. The war between Doratnu and Terzet had been over for decades. For some, a lifetime.

“It’s not always that simple,” he said at last.
Doesn’t this give a much better sense of time passing, and the protagonist waiting for an answer to his question? It works because time actually does pass while the reader is reading. Thirty-four whole words of it. Those words become the pause you can’t see.

A little shifting can make a big difference in how a reader absorbs the information you offer them. Dialogue is fast, immediate, while internalization is slower. If you want your dialogue to be snappy and fast-paced, limit the amount of non-spoken words you put between the characters talking. If you want to slow things time and make it feel more reflective, a little internal thought and stage direction can give you the time to need.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

12 comments:

  1. Re-working dialogue sections was something I fretted over working on Locked Within. It's staggering how significant a change can be made by making such small changes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is fabulous! I'm bookmarking it - hopefully begninning revision next week on rewrite #4 (ie first draft number 4 :) I know I have dialogue trouble, I often just write out talking heads, just to get the words out, then have to add the other stuff back in!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fun stuff, Janice! I agree, of course. Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wow. That was an excellent example. It can seem so subtle sometimes, these little differences, but they can really mean a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "He finally said" "said at last" Totally guilty of doing this. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Another great post! I'm usually guilty of drawing out the dialogue when the response between characters should be quick.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anne: Thanks!

    Paul: The subtlety in writing always impresses me. One word, one comma, and the meaning can totally change.

    Roberta: My first drafts always look like that. Dialog is part of the first pass and has really bad tags.

    Juliette: Most welcome!

    Matthew: They really do. I love finding those little subtleties.

    Bluestocking: Thanks!

    Melissa: That's pretty common, so you're not alone :)

    Michelle: Most welcome :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for giving such clear examples of that...very helpful and practical advice!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great post! The rhythm of dialog (as well as any other passage) is so important, and you are right that reading it aloud can make it more obvious. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. LOVE this! Thanks for the examples. They really make it clear! :-)

    ReplyDelete