Rare is the novel that has no dialogue, especially today. For some authors, writing dialogue is a piece of cake, and it’s preferred over writing narrative. Others find it more difficult and would prefer to write narrative. Good novelists find balance.
I wrote a post for AuthorCulture today, “Let’s Talk Dialogue,” in which I discuss the components of conversation. There’s much more to it than the verbal exchange of information, just as there’s more to writing dialogue than the words that appear between the quotation marks. Dialogue should be spiked with activity, emotion, and internal monologue–all of which can be presented using action beats.
Action beats give the reader a sense of activity between the participants of a conversation. When writing dialogue, remember your setting, what your characters are doing, and what you want to convey, and give your characters props to work with. Showing your characters using props not only allows the reader to know who is speaking the line, not only allows the reader a sense of activity, but it can also help present emotion.
I just finished a dialogue in Riding Herd in which Talon is repairing a stirrup strap. Fun thing about stirrup straps: they require holes to be punched into the leather with a tool aptly named a hole punch. Talon punches six parallel holes in the end of the strap, then folds it over, forming a loop where the stirrup itself will fit, and pokes six corresponding holes above the first set. Instead of using a buckle, Talon cinches the two segments together around the stirrup with wet leather laces and ties stopper knots in the laces. When the knots dry, the laces will be secure.
Nice bit of research there to allow an activity to occur during the dialogue. If you noticed that the key tool is a hole punch, you could probably bet what the tone of the dialogue is. If you bet on anger and frustration, you win the gold star. Talon stabs holes in the leather strap with a fury accenting his own emotions.
What props can you use to emphasize your character’s emotions?
Here’s the scene using the props. Talon, the story’s hero, is in the tack room of his horse barn, and Adele, the heroine’s aunt, enters. She’s not exactly welcome on the scene:
He jabbed a hole into the leather, then lined the tool up to punch another. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh, I just wanted to talk.” She held her hands behind her back and wandered through the tack room, stepping around sawhorses holding saddles and the wheeled chair that had been pushed too far away from the metal desk. “You keep this place in good order.”
“Just finished straightening it.”
“Then you did a fine job. Good, productive use of a rainy day.”
“I used to live on a horse ranch in Kentucky. Our stable had twenty stalls and a tack room twice this size. We raised prize-winning Thoroughbreds and–”
“What can I do for you, ma’am? I’m a bit busy,” and he had no desire to hear how her life, her ranch, had been superior to his. Comparing a cattle ranch to a Thoroughbred farm was like comparing apples and Monets. Monet may have painted apples, and a cattle enterprise may include horses, but the similarities stopped there.
Adele grabbed the old chair and wheeled it across from him. “Patricia is terribly upset about something.”
He punched one last hole, then folded the leather back on itself to a size that would fit around a stirrup, marked the spot, and drove the awl through.
She leaned toward him. “I think you know why.”
Another hole. Jabbing the leather had a healing effect. Served as an outlet for his mounting anger.
“I wish you’d tell me. I can’t help her if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
He raised his eyes, glancing at her from beneath his hat. “It’s between her and me.”
“Then why aren’t you in there talking to her? Why aren’t you trying to settle this?”
After he stabbed the last hole through, he dropped the tool in the box, gripped his thighs, and stared at her. “Ma’am, Pat’s mad at me, and me telling her what’s on my mind is only going to make things worse.”
Talon’s attitude and emotions are revealed through dialogue, internal thought, and body language–and his use of the props. Notice how the action beats also help with the setting description.
Amp up your dialogue by packing as much information in as possible, including info outside the quotation marks.