Experimenting to Enhance Dialogue

A simple method to help decide which description details work to enrich dialogue.

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I’m always searching for ways to allow the dialogue in my writing to flow more naturally. We all have our weaknesses as writers, and mine definitely happens as soon as my characters open their mouths. My natural instinct seems to be to write words that could be vocalised by emotionless drones or clichéd characters with no souls.

In my never-ending quest to improve the way in which my characters communicate, I have stumbled across a technique that is useful, accessible, time-effective, and also quite fun. It allows you to experiment with the description you choose to include within scenes of dialogue, play with the balance of body language versus spoken words, and explore how to use description to further enhance conversation.

The source of this technique is daytime soap operas.

You probably weren’t expecting that, and I am fully aware that the actual substance of the words used in soap operas isn’t particularly powerful or enlightening, because it’s easy-viewing daytime TV.

1. Pick a scene

Find a soap opera you can tolerate and locate a scene where a short conversation happens between two characters. (You can move on to additional characters and group conversations in time, but first stick to the basics.) Remote control in hand, pausing as required, write out the words spoken by the characters, along with the bare bones of dialogue tags that feel necessary to understand who is speaking.

Here is an example:

“I can’t believe you said that.” Janet says.

“Well, she was being out of order,” Chris replies.

“Yeah, but what if she was telling the truth? I mean, it could be true.”

“Why should I trust her?” Chris asks. “I can see why you might fall for it—you’ve not seen her the way I have. She’s a liar and that’s the truth.”

“She’s been through some rough times, alright?” Janet says. “Ever since Sadie left she’s been struggling with her job, and now this with Dean? It’s just not fair.”

“We’ve all had difficult moments. I don’t buy it.”

Yes, the dialogue is ropey and not very convincing, but that’s not what is important. It is the descriptions around the dialogue that will make this scene work, and those are what to concentrate on.

2. Fill in the gaps

You can now start to experiment, but only with the description. Leave the script as it was, and see how different you can make it just through actions. Don’t worry about being too overly-considered or polished—you’re merely playing on the surface of how simple description can affect the way words are interpreted.

You could add in all of the details and body language the characters use in one version of your dialogue, and then make it extremely minimal in another. Afterwards, read the two aloud and see what difference this makes. Some of the description should feel extremely necessary, but plenty of it might be acceptable to cut.

Here is a description experiment for the above dialogue extract:

Janet fiddles with the tiny straps of the top she’s hanging out to dry, trying different ways to get it to stay on the line. “I can’t believe you said that.”

“Well, she was being out of order,” Chris replies.

“Yeah.” The vest falls. “But what if she was telling the truth? I mean, it could be true.” She snatches the vest from the grass and shoves it back in the wash basket.

Chris walks round behind Janet, wraps his arms around her. “Why should I trust her?” He leans in close to her ear, almost whispering. “I can see why you might fall for it—you’ve not seen her the way I have.” He glides the palms of his hands up and down her arms, before again consuming her with his embrace. “She’s a liar and that’s the truth.”

Janet closes her eyes. “She’s been through some rough times, alright?” She shakes her head to herself, just slightly. “Ever since Sadie left she’s been struggling with her job, and now this with Dean? It’s just not fair.”

“We’ve all had difficult moments.” Chris smiles. “I don’t buy it.”

In this example, the relationship between Chris and Janet becomes something very different, and their focus on the third, unnamed character suggests a lot that remains unsaid.

To take the story a different way, you could try something like this:

“I can’t believe you said that.” Janet whispers.

Chris scowls at her, and a few moments pass. Then he remembers what he’s supposed to be watching. “Well, she was being out of order,” he replies, hoping that’s the end of it and the rest of their hours can fall back into the usual silence.

“Yeah,” Janet whispers, “but what if she was telling the truth? I mean, it could be true.”

Chris’ forehead beads with sweat. He rubs it with the back of his hand, smearing a thin layer of ash on his skin. Again, he waits, his lips pursed together into a thin, uncomfortable line.

Janet raises her eyebrows, impatient.

“Why should I trust her?” Chris asks. “I can see why you might fall for it—you’ve not seen her the way I have.”

They both look up.

They pause, lay still, play dead until it passes.

Janet looks back at Chris, brows still raised.

“She’s a liar,” Chris says, “and that’s the truth.”

“She’s been through some rough times, alright?” Janet says too loud, and Chris creases his eyes shut. “Ever since Sadie left she’s been struggling with her job, and now this with Dean? It’s just not fair.”

He needs to end this.

He moves, elbows and knees and tips of his toes slowly shifting his weight forward until he is right in front of her.

“We’ve all had difficult moments.” Dirt and his saliva coat her face from his words. “I don’t buy it.”

Here the story is more science-fiction, though what is happening around them, and what has been done to make this conversation so important in the circumstances, again raises questions. In either case, the dialogue is no longer ropey, but now conveys a deeper meaning.

When undertaking this exercise, consider whether the characters speak in a way that isn’t what the actors have chosen to do with the scene? Could they whisper, or shout, or could they seem completely uninterested in what the other is saying, or perhaps overly affectionate towards the other character?

Could the ages of the characters change, their gender, their occupation? Could you place the scene in a different setting? Could you manage to create descriptions that make your daytime soap opera extract feel like a post-watershed comedy, or a horror?

Once you’ve tried out a few different experiments and read each out-loud to yourself, consider how and why the dynamics of the conversation have changed as a result of your meddling. Have you added anxiety, joy, frustration, comedy, or danger to a scene, due solely to the descriptions you have chosen to include or exclude? How have you managed this and could you reach the same outcome if you worked with a different chunk of character dialogue from a different soap opera?

Is your outcome useful in conveying a message alongside the dialogue, or is it all just an extra bit of unnecessary fluff for a reader to deal with?

It could help for you to compare the impact of description in writing to the use of music in programs or films; they both help the reader or viewer to understand the message that needs to be communicated. I once watched a short clip of a house tour that media students had turned into an anxiety driven piece simply by the music they chose to use to accompany it. The students wanted to show how the way in which viewers perceive information is deeply affected by what they already associate through sound—and since most viewers associated the music chosen with frightening scenes, the results were highly successful and strangely unsettling. For TV, sound can heavily aid the communication of a certain message, but for writing, we must use description to channel this and help a reader get into a certain mind-set.

Every piece of description you choose to use alongside dialogue should be employed accurately to enrich the message you want to communicate. This technique helps me filter out a variety of ways in which to do so, and I hope you find it to be as quick and rewarding as I do.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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