Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. It’s totally immersive, it’s evocative of character and place, and it can add layers of tension and nuance like nobody’s business. Not to mention, it’s eminently quotable. All this, and it seems so approachable! I mean, we almost all talk in one fashion or another, right? So clearly, we should all be masters of The Dialogue. But dialogue is deceptive tricky—and it takes a clever author to work it to its best effect.
One of those authors is Erin M. Evans. When I first read her book Lesser Evils, I was immediately struck by the dialogue. It was just so effortlessly natural. And the characters didn’t all sound alike, either. It was one of those rare stories in which you could really figure out what each individual character would say in any given situation, and how they would say it. Not only that, but you wanted to repeat it to your friends later. Needless to say, I enjoyed the dialogue so much, that in my 2012 Five Books for Writers column two weeks ago, I picked it as my favorite book for studying the subject.
So, you can imagine how pleased I was when Erin agreed to do an interview on how she gets those characters to speak! Because while you can figure out a lot from reading Lesser Evils and studying it, the chance to learn techniques from the author herself cannot be beat.
Susan: What are the goals of dialogue?
Erin: Dialogue is one of the strongest pillars of storytelling. It’s immediate and immersive. It can carry a lot of details about characters and plot and setting without being too obvious about it. It can be used to adjust the pace of your story, or land a beat you might otherwise miss.
Susan: How do you make dialogue compelling?
Erin: I think you start by listening to a lot of people talk (real people! Not TV or movie people!). The best thing you can do is get a feel for the cadence of voices, the word choice people use when they’re feeling a certain way, the way they convey information—especially when there are other factors at play. Like someone eavesdropping on them! Think about why people say what they say the way they say it. I think reading or listening to great dialogue is definitely helpful too, but without that “primary source” you’re echoing something that’s already been distilled. It can end up sounding stiff or goofy.