Writing Dialogue In Novels, by Carolyn Meyer
Your characters are center stage, and they’re talking.
Dialogue, and lots of it, is one of the key components of teen fiction, whether the novel is historical or contemporary. It’s a critical part of a scene and reinforces voice. You probably know browsers who open a book, perhaps attracted by the clever cover or the author’s name, and flip through the pages to check on the amount of dialogue: too little talk and the text appears dense, and the book goes back on the shelf.
Dialogue on the page is more concise than actual conversation. It doesn’t ramble, it reveals character and it moves the story forward. Usually you need do little more than to identify the speakers at the beginning: “he said” or “she said” will do it. You can vary that with words like barked, screamed, whispered, exclaimed or shouted. Modifiers, like loudly or excitedly, are usually unnecessary.
A variation on dialogue is interior monologue, in which the main character thinks to herself or imagines a conversation with another character in which the main character takes both sides. Here’s an example from a novel in my contemporary Hotline series, with the interior monologue set in italics:
Lissa is dead, Jenny thought, letting the water stream down over her face. She’s dead and I’ll never see her again. Jenny worked shampoo into her hair. But she can’t be dead. I can’t believe it. I won’t believe it.
Dialogue can also play a major part in flashbacks, animating material that falls outside the time frame of the narrative, as when Jenny, out of the shower, remembers a conversation she had with Lissa the previous day, before the novel begins.
By all means avoid the “info dump”, using dialogue as a means to convey information. This is a common trap, which I fell into in Cleopatra Confesses. Cleopatra confides to a friend that she dreams of becoming Caesar’s wife, but she is already married to her younger brother (common among the pharaohs).
Her friend reminds her of Caesar’s complicated marital life, and Cleopatra replies, “You are right – he has a wife in Rome. Her name is Calpurnia. His first wife, Cornelia, bore him his only child, Julia, and both are dead. He divorced his second wife, Pompeia, when he suspected her of adultery.” Cleopatra goes on to talk about the need for Caesar’s wife to be above reproach, and Caesar’s disappointment that Calpurnia is barren and has given him no children. This is all necessary information, but it should have been conveyed in some other way, perhaps an interior monologue in which Cleopatra considers the situation. It’s also a clunky paragraph. (A critical reviewer pounced on my lapse.)
Here’s an exercise that develops dialogue skills and produces interesting and sometimes hilarious results in a writing group or a class. Provide one provocative line of dialogue (Example: “I told you not to open that!”) and write nothing but dialogue for twenty minutes – no description, no set-up and only an occasional “he said/she said” is allowed.
Dialogue is an indispensable skill when you’re writing for teens. If your characters are on stage, get them talking and make the most of it.
Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com
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Writing Teen Novels