Monday, September 3, 2012


Guest post by: Peggy Bennitt

Dialogue can be one of the most difficult challenges for a writer, but it is also one of the most important components of a great story. Writers can tell a reader all about the characters and let us ‘listen in’ on the thoughts and impressions that characters have of each other and of their surroundings. But until those characters speak, until they are each given a voice, no one really gets to know them.

Our job as writers is to introduce and then encourage characters to conversations. Dialogue is how we get to know people in the real world, and since our stories are just fictionalized reality, dialogue is essential conversation with purpose. Relationships are built through conversations and interactions. Dialogue is conversation in a story and it is the relational glue that makes readers ‘stick’ with the story and invest themselves in the people there.

You may already be saying, “Yikes! I just want to tell a story.” But in reality, writers want our characters to tell their own stories. Through their dialogue, characters ‘show and tell’ the reader about their lives. Their dialogue not only builds relationship with the other characters, it builds that all important relationship with the reader.

So how do we as writers do that? How do we craft dialogue that moves the story forward and builds relationships between characters and readers alike? Writing good dialogue is a challenge, but once we get the hang of it, we just may find it difficult to shut them up. Here are a few tips on how to Let ‘Em Talk:

¨ Before we even turn our computers on, we need to give “the work of our hands” to our Lord. Before we ever put pen to paper, we need to give ourselves and our writing up to His plans. The gift of words He has given us is for His glory. Trust Him with it as you begin each day.

¨ Build a brief history of each character. Even if it’s just one line, or a short paragraph. Keep it in a file on your computer or in a notebook for easy reference as you write. This gives a reason for him or her to be in the first place. If the character is necessary to move the story forward, then it’s necessary to have an interview, a dialogue, to find out what motivates her or what has happened in his past. Ask questions and listen to the voice that responds. Listen for the accent or the dialect that is intrinsic to each character. Jot down quirks or habits that appear as she speaks or as he drinks his coffee.

¨ It may sound strange to suggest interviews with characters, but posing questions and allowing each character to answer, in his own voice, will help ‘hear’ each particular ‘voice’ and learn the speech patterns. As they ‘talk,’ get in touch with what motivates or fuels each characters’ actions, facial expressions, and visualize the nuances that make each an individual.

¨ It may help at first to write the dialogue between characters as a screenplay, even include props and entrance and exit instructions, such as ‘stage left.’ This may help to visualize the scene, stimulate dialogue, and give a reference point for scenery and props.

In one of my Creative Writing classes in college, the instructor had us first write poetry to help us condense work usage to a potent minimum, and accustom us to hearing the rhythm of the words. Then we had to write at least one scene as a play to force characters to interact and talk more naturally. When writing a play, the dialogue is the storytelling vehicle, so each character’s words have to be purposefully constructed to advance the story and build the character relationships. That experience was an eye-opener for me. I use both techniques still to help me add dimension to my characters.

¨ Listen to people of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds and observe their actions and facial expressions as they interact. Malls, schools, and workplaces are just a few great places to observe and listen to people. Watch their actions as they speak, but more importantly for dialogue’s sake, listen to the give-and-take involved in the various conversations. Do two people finish one another’s sentences? Do they interrupt each other? Do they use several different languages in their speech? Does a person use proper English or slang? Are there cultural dialects being used? Be an observer. Develop a sharp ear for the nuances of speech all around you. This will help you hear your own characters better as you write.

¨ Now, take a look at your characters. Can you hear them as you write? Do you hear each voice? Let ‘em talk without censoring them. Save censure for the second draft. By letting characters blather on, you just might gain valuable insights into what makes them tick. You may even have unplanned characters wander into the story and introduce themselves. Be ready to make them feel welcome if they have something important to add. But don’t be afraid to ‘show them the door’ if they’re not going to contribute to the story.

Crafting great dialogue is an intricate part of the art of writing. No one knows them better than you, the writer. But if they can’t have their say, no one else will ever know them for who they really are. If we want our characters to live, we have to let ‘em talk.

Peggy Bennitt is a Christian writer and a degreed Family Life Educator (FLE). She has written book reviews for a local newspaper and a family advice column called, Ask Aunt Peg, for a local Family Magazine. She is currently the editor of her church’s newsletter and volunteers in various ministry areas there. She has held a variety of jobs that have given her eclectic background material for her writing, and currently has a novel-in-process.

Living in the country with her accountant husband and a bevy of houseplants is one of the great joys in her life. She also has three grown children and three wonderful grandchildren, making her life very close to perfect. Her favorite pastimes are reading, writing, and sewing, with a little gardening and cooking thrown into the mix. Being a wife, mother, and grandma has given her the best possible experience for writing. She says, “Family life is an education all by itself.”

The Bible verse that has had the most impact on her life is Psalm 118:24—This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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