A simple back and forth exchange in dialogue is like a plain chicken breast. It’ll keep your body full and moving, but pretty soon your taste buds are going to get bored. You need BBQ sauce. Or Ranch shake-and-bake. Or spicy raspberry-balsamic marinade. You need to add variety.
The same principle applies to your dialogue, and the best way to add variety is to imitate real speech patterns.
(1) Answer with a Question
When someone asks you a question you’d rather not answer, how do you react? Most people deflect.
“I tried calling you yesterday night. Where were you?”
“Where do you think I was?”
Interruption can characterize a person who’s impatient or self-centered by nature. It can also heat up an argument or give the reader insight into a deteriorating relationship.
“You really need to—”
“I know. You don’t need to keep reminding me.”
(3) Let Silence Speak
In Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a man is trying to convince a woman to get an abortion. Her reaction—silence. And it conveys her resistance to his suggestion more clearly than if she’d said it aloud.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
Your character might resort to silence for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re passive-aggressive, maybe they’re afraid of angering the person they’re talking to, or maybe they feel like nothing they could say would make a difference anyway.
(4) Add a Beat in the Middle
Sometimes you’ll notice a pattern like this appearing in your dialogue.
Action beat. “Dialogue.”
Feeling. Action beat. “Dialogue.”
Action beat. “Dialogue.”
If it goes on for too long, the lack of variety in structure can become boring regardless of how thrilling the content of your dialogue is. Often you can fix it by simply inserting a beat in the middle of two sentences of dialogue.
Original: Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”
Revised: “I don’t like it here.” Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “I want to go home.”
It adds a pause to the rhythm.
When to add a beat and when to leave the dialogue straight is almost more a matter of instinct and hearing the cadence of your character’s speech patterns than it is a scientific formula of tag here + beat there = interesting dialogue.
(This doesn’t violate the concept of F-A-D explained in my previous post on dialogue. It’s a variation of it. You’ll notice that the beat isn’t moved to the end of the dialogue, but is instead used as a pause in it, almost like the speaker is taking a breath–the same way we do in real life.)
(5) Add Subtext
In Creating Unforgettable Characters, author and Hollywood script director Linda Seger describes subtext as “what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines.”
It’s that argument with your husband about the toothpaste tube that has nothing to do with toothpaste at all, the talk with your child that lets them know you found out they’ve been stealing even though you never mention the word theft, or the veiled threat from the woman whose job you got.
Try using subtext in an emotionally charged conversation that would otherwise be in danger of melodrama if you wrote it directly. You’ll also often find subtext in a conversation where characters can’t speak openly for fear of being overheard.
In real life, we often echo a word when we’re nervous, lying, or stalling for time.
“Do you think she’s pretty?”
And sometimes, if the conversation isn’t going where we want it to, we just refuse to go along with it.
“We’re going to lose our reservation. You almost ready to go?”
“I saw you with her again today.”
If you missed Part 1 of my series on dialogue, “5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know,” now’s a great time to go back and check it out.
I’d love to have your input as well. How do you add variety to your dialogue?