What we don’t teach students – and I did not know to teach – surprised me as I’ve studied how to improve my writing to publish my work. As a teaching consultant, I wrote constantly. As a teacher I thought I did a good job teaching students how to extend their thinking into writing. I taught them general principles that worked for both non-fiction and fiction writing. But I missed these EASY steps to make dialogue more interesting.
1. Add body language.
Body language, facial expressions, and unspoken communication constitute an estimated 70% of what people understand. But readers can’t see the characters.
Ask students to describe angry, sad, happy or worried. Include this description before or after the quotation.
Notice how the body language helps make the dialogue more interesting in this scene. Tani invited her friend Vanessa to move in with her after fire burnt down her house.
“You have problems, Vanessa, but at least you have Jesus.”
“True enough, even if I am not great about going to church.” Vanessa looked down and started picking at her split ends.
Tani changed the subject. Why don’t you come stay with me for a while, Ness?” She looked around living room, with lace curtains, and colorful couch. Everything was in its place. Tani pursed her lips together in a tight confident smile and tilted her head as she glanced from one side of the room to another.
Vanessa backed away from her a couple of steps. It’s sweet of you to open your home, but Babe, you would kill me after one or two nights! I’m not easy to live with. I would mess up your routines!”
“My routines are helpful!” Tani put her hands on her hips. “You’re just jealous because I can find things like my glasses and robe!”
“You got me on that one Tani.”
Twisting her hair, Tani broached the subject Vanessa shied away from. “We could go to that new senior singles group at church together if you stayed here for a while. You know I hate to go alone, and you are so friendly.”
In addition to the website, I google images and try describing them to get the right emotional effect.
What do these movements mean?
Websites like this help students (LIKE ME) describe body language for various emotions, and remind me what certain movements mean.
- Silence speaks louder than dialogue. In counseling, as in the written word, silence carries the heaviest loads. Tension is palpable, and I would bet if you have not read Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, you will go check it out now.
“Does Eliza mean nothing to you?” Miss Rose rebuked him.
“That’s not the point. Eliza committed an unpardonable offense against society, and she must pay the piper.”
“As I have paid for nearly twenty years?”
A frozen silence fell over the dining room. The family had never spoken openly about Rose’s past, and Jeremy was not even certain that John knew what had happened between his sister and the Viennese tenor…
- Add interruptions to dialogue. Barriers and interruptions also add tension to already tense situations. The conversation in the dining room continued. As readers we are still reeling from Miss Rose’s secret revelation when Isabel plays the next dialogue card.
“Paid what, Rose? You were forgiven, and protected. You have no reason to reproach me.”
“Why were you so generous with me but cannot be with Eliza?”
“Because you are my sister and it is my duty to protect you.”
“Eliza is like my own daughter, Jeremy!”
“But she is not. We have no obligation to her; she does not belong to this family.”
“Oh, but she does!” Miss Rose cried.
“Enough!” the captain interrupted, banging on the table with his fists as plates and cups danced.
Interruptions might also be people coming in at the wrong time. No one was more skillful at interrupting than Kramer. Dialogue with Kramer around never got boring.
Have students write dialogue as they normally would leaving plenty of room between each speech. Then have them go back and add one of these three techniques. They might do the same to another writer’s dialogue.
** History Teachers – try this to spice up a history lesson after reading a piece of non-fiction text. Have the students create a dialogue between important players in the event they are studying. Then have them go back and add in these techniques.
If you liked these tips James Scott Bell has many more in his book How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript.
The 7 Tools of Dialogue by James Scott Bell, found in Writers’ Digest
Images from Google.