How Do I Make Dialogue Meaningful?

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By Hyu-Wai Loucks

One of the most difficult aspects of writing a novel, or any narrative for that matter, is striking the delicate balance between dialogue and description. While insight into a character’s thoughts, emotions, and perceptions help shape the audience’s understanding of the character’s mind, dialogue aids readers in developing an accurate and full understanding of the character’s complete self. It offers an external glimpse into how a character moves, speaks, and reacts to the world surrounding them; dialogue is a character’s internal motives coming to life. Even so, it is difficult to develop a meaningful flow of speech which progresses the plot, rather than stagnating it.

Countless times while I have been writing, I will be immersed in the world of my own mind, putting down the situations being played out in my head by pen to paper, only later realizing that my dialogue loops in circles, or even worse, straying entirely from the point I am trying articulate.

How can I prevent this????

Thus, there are three necessary regulations dialogue must follow:

1) The dialogue must reveal a trait, secret, habit, or aspect of the character not revealed to the reader previously.

2) The dialogue must progress the plot.

3) The dialogue must divulge a philosophy held by the author or character, which is crucial to the narrative’s turning point.

Let’s take this highlighted passage below from my novel, The Power of Healing, to expound on these three points.

For context purposes, the excerpt above is a conversation between protagonist Charlotte Bell and her friend Earnest Heger as the two teenagers hike to a local water lily pond in the middle of the night, while discussing their plans for university. Earnest has just divulged that he hopefully aims to study art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in return, skeptical Charlotte is incredulous at his whimsical goals. This passage is Earnest’s benign defense of his passion of art.

Firstly, does this dialogue reveal a personality trait of Charlotte’s? Yes, it does! Although Charlotte’s incessant pressing of what the “right direction” is; what “is wrong with skepticism;” and what Earnest means by “cower[ing] behind our masks;” obviously reveals her dubious nature, her three questioning interjections uncovers a softer side of her, which despite her hard skepticism of art and her friend’s lofty dreams, she is willing to further understand and accept Earnest’s desires. This barely perceptible crediting and embracing aspect of Charlotte is crucial to her growth as a character, which as she matures throughout the novel, aids her in blossoming into a young woman who admires Earnest’s passionate proclamation of the arts and deeply supports his calling as an artist.

Secondly, does this dialogue progress the plot? Absolutely! Despite Charlotte’s stubborn doubtful questioning of Earnest’s goals, Earnest’s patient explication of modern skepticism and its debilitating effect on the pureness of art, directly gestures to Charlotte herself, who is an unconscious slave to her societal mask. As a character embittered by her past, she constructs her world around her academic achievements and living solitarily. Yet, Earnest’s words are slowly peeling apart the layers of masks Charlotte has donned for years to hide her inner, vulnerable self.

Thirdly, does this dialogue divulge a philosophy crucial to the turning point of the plot? Yes! This is one of the first times in the novel for which the topic of masks arises; the reader begins to question if everything is truly as it seems. The passage discusses vulnerability and man’s misconception of believing that it is actually beneficial to assume a false identity in front of others. Later, we learn that Earnest is not Earnest’s real name; in actuality, he is Charlotte’s childhood friend, whose memory exists at the root of her pain. Earnest is a mask. Additionally, the reader thus also begins to look at themselves differently, internally reflecting on the own masks that he/she might don, which blinds them to their already beautiful identity.

Now that we have closely studied the three rules of meaningful conversation, let’s discuss how to put these in action.

In earlier drafts of The Power of Healing, I fell into the trap of making my dialogue too philosophical and blatantly ignoring the first two rules of meaningful dialogue; I wrote my dialogue more like an essay, rather than a story.

To prevent this, write your dialogue as a simple, flowing conversation you might have with a friend, teacher, superior, etc. Imagine yourself conversing with your character and how you might react and talk. Visualize the setting, and ponder your body language and the tone of your voice as you react to various utterances in the conversation. Write these into your narrative! The conversation between Charlotte and Earnest is peppered with actions the characters are doing as they make their way to the water lily pond (e.g., pushing vines out of their path, ducking the foliage, walking). Remind the reader that the world is still progressing and happening outside of this one moment in your story.

Do not forget that dialogue is a back-and-forth progression of the plot through words being spoken aloud by your characters. Use a character’s confusion to your advantage, as I did with Charlotte, in order for you to further explicate your point. Write from an emotion or a belief as you type your dialogue, and frequently interject with other character’s voices, questions, speculations, etc., to give the moment more depth and more opportunities for you to broaden your argument and further the point being made.

If you feel as if your dialogue is spinning in circles and diverging from the plot completely, take a step back and read over what you have written thus far. Sometimes, dialogue which initially seems to be a mess, can pose as an open door for you to extend your plot and explore another area of the story which you haven’t thought about. For example, when I was writing the conversation between Charlotte and Constantin, I never anticipated to draw a parallel between human nature and art on the succeeding page. Yet, through the discussion of masks and art’s ability to reveal one’s flaws, I was able to tie in a discussion on the so-called “perfect flaw” and segue into the authenticity of humanity.

Even so, at other times when a piece of dialogue strays from the plot too extremely, it is a warning sign to return to your notes on the character(s) in question and reassess their development. Re-brainstorm their beliefs and personalities, and rewrite their dialogue to match their whole beings. Most often, turbulent dialogue is a result of inconsistent character development.

With practice, you can find a balance in your writing and write meaningful dialogue! Above all, do not forget to visualize your dialogue as if it is a conversation happening in real time, and season it with insights into your characters and your views on the world. Enjoy!

The Power of Healing by Hyu-Wai Loucks

About Hyu-Wai Loucks:

Hyu-Wai Loucks (b. 1999) was born in Toronto, Canada, and moved to the States in 2002. She has loved literature her entire life. In third grade (2007), Hyu-Wai wrote her first short story and in fourth grade (2008), she received third place at a regional writing contest for her short story, “The Bubble-Gum Blower.”

In June 2017, Hyu-Wai’s first novel, The Power of Healing, was published by Books to Go Now. The Power of Healing was featured on June 7, 2017 by WCIA-TV. She is currently working on her next book.

Hyu-Wai graduated from high school in May 2017 and currently is a double-major in the social sciences and humanities at university.

Photo credit: pic fix via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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