Empty Dialogue vs. Characterization
by Debora Dale
“How are you?”
“Great. And you?”
“Glad to hear it.”
“We should get together sometime.”
“Yeah, we should. I’ll call you.”
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that block of dialogue, and maybe it is true to life. But, if you stumbled upon that conversation in a book, would it reel you in? Keep you engaged? No? I didn’t think so. It’s simply two (assumed) people exchanging empty dialogue.
Just as we have one chance to make a great first impression when meeting someone, our characters have only one chance to make a great first impression with our readers. By ‘great’ first impression, I don’t mean love-at-first-sight. I mean, they have to show who they are and who we – their creators – want them to be.
Instead of our characters meeting as we might in real life – with stilted small talk as in the above example – we could (read that “should”) sprinkle in some zest, some punch and interest.
She saw his name on the medical chart and raced to meet the EMT’s as they wheeled him into the ER. Bloody bandages covered his head, a brace supported his neck. His face was bruised and swollen, his beautiful eyes clenched in pain.
She clutched his hand and ran alongside the gurney as they rushed down the hall toward room 9. They slammed through the swinging doors at the midpoint and he groaned.
His eyes fluttered open. Just a slit.
She wanted to smile for him. To encourage him. But the words wouldn’t come. She could only muster one scratchy syllable. “Hi.”
“Hey.” His voice was scratchier than hers, but at least he was able to respond.
They swung the gurney around to enter the room head first. He kept his eyes on hers and in his she saw pain and something she’d never seen from him before. Fear.
She hung the IV, checked his vitals. Felt a wave of dread and forced a smile into her voice. “You’re looking good.”
“You too.” His voice was barely a whisper.
Willing her hands to steady, she started the morphine drip, blinked back tears. “Thanks.”
If you cut everything but dialogue from the above, you’d see this –
“You’re looking good.”
It’s boring on its own, isn’t it? Yet, in proper context, that same dialogue can tug you further into your characters’ hearts.
Dialogue has to serve a purpose. It has to share information, move the story forward and show characterization. Dialogue is about “show” not “tell”. It’s also about setting the tone for the rest of the book. By showing what our characters are made of early on, their reaction and response to some later obstacle will seem natural.
Here’s an example of dialogue that truly ‘shows’ who these characters are. It’s not from a book but from the movie, Princess of Thieves. I love everything about this first meeting because it absolutely sets the tone not only for the rest of the story but for the characters’ personal journeys – together and apart. It’s not the first time we meet these two – Gwyn (Robin Hood’s daughter) and Prince Philip (King Richard’s illegitimate son who is about to take the crown), but it is the first time they meet each other.
It establishes their personalities in an engaging, effective and entertaining (pardon the alliteration) way.
SHE is hiding in the woods after having stolen venison from the rich to give to the poor. She’s dressed as a man and there’s a warrant out for her arrest. HE is being targeted by his father’s enemies who not only want the crown but also want to see him dead. His horse is tied to a tree as he sits by the river splashing water onto his face. She needs to away from there and is about to steal his horse. He hears the horse whinny and…
He tackles her to the ground then, realizing she’s a woman, hastily releases her and jumps to his feet, clearly distressed. “Good Lord. My apologies. You are dressed as a man.”
“Well, how else should a man dress?”
He gives her the once over, still stunned. “Uh… You fool the eye somewhat but there are four other senses. I’m…sorry if I hurt you.” He turns away from her.
She goes back to the horse, again intending to take it. She hesitates, turns back to him… “Now you let me steal your horse?”
This is where it gets really good…their dialogue is rapid fire, their expressions perfect but you don’t need to see them to ‘see’ them because the dialogue works that well on its own.
His response: “I give it to you freely, madam. A woman should not have to walk.”
“Has not a woman legs? Do we not walk and run just as you do?”
“There are dangers for a woman in the forest.”
“Oh, but no dangers for you.”
“I’m bigger and stronger.”
“But not faster or more cunning.”
“Oh, so you’d agree I’m more cunning.”
“Will you just take the horse and be gone?”
“I’ll steal a horse fairly, but I won’t take it for the poor reason of my gender.” She starts to stomp off.
“Wait. We could both ride. I am a stranger and I would be grateful for a guide. I must get back to France and to safety.”
Her steps are sure as she goes back to him. “I’m going to Nottingham. There are people who might help you to France, but I must warn you it’s not safe to be in my company.”
“I’m wanted in five shires.”
“I’m wanted in all of England.”
She inches closer still, looks into his eyes. “I don’t care if you’re a thief or a murderer but are you loyal to King Richard?”
He closes the small gap between them, lowers his voice to a seductive murmur. “That, I can assure you, I am.”
She studies him. “Then we can share the ride.” (remember…it’s HIS horse!)
She turns toward the horse, leaving him staring after her as she mounts it. The next scene shows them riding away with her in the saddle and him hanging onto her as he bounces along on the horse’s rump.
Now THAT’s characterization! Yes?
Who are your characters? What strengths or weaknesses inhabit their hearts? How will you expose them? Which of their traits matters most to your story? What emotion do you want readers to feel when they meet them?
Now, go back and introduce your characters – to your readers and to each other – in a way that shows what they’re made of.