I was giving a seminar on character development last weekend, and I mentioned using dialog as a cool way to show your character rather than tell your character. What I mean is this:
Telling your character:
Jane was the quirky sort who looked at the world through a skewed lens. She was on a few degrees off plumb.
On the face of it, the sentence is fine, but what if her dialog never reveals these characteristics? Then I have no choice but to take your word for it; and I won’t.
Here’s an example of showing your character through dialog:
“What’s the fun of attending this stuffy tea if we can’t have a little fun? I say we spike the teapot with cheap gin and watch those university wives get down with the funk. With a little bit of luck, they’ll hike up their skirts and splash about the marble fountain. It’d be the most fun they’ve had since having their braces removed.”
The dialog makes the first example sentence (tell) unnecessary. The reader already has it figured out that the character is a few degrees off plumb.
I always appreciate authors who show rather than tell because this adds an extra layer to character development. You’re getting the idea across about your character by letting her speak, rather than giving your readers a menu. As I always say, you can tell me something ’til the cows come home, but until you show me, well…I’d rather go cow tipping.
The author in my seminar asked about what books I could recommend that had “intentional dialog” – dialog that accomplishes the two-part goal of imparting information and showing some character development. Oboy…what books? There are a gajillion books out there that can teach writers all kinds of cool writing tips.
The trick is to read with intention. If you’re looking for cool dialog, read with the intent of analyzing effective dialog. For example, I patterned my dialog after John Lescroart because I love the delicious banter he creates for his two main characters in his Dismas Hardy series. He makes me laugh and keeps me turning the pages. Moreover, I care about the characters. So when I first started writing, I kept a close eye on how he developed his dialog. I figured out what I liked about his dialog is that it’s dry, minimalist, and witty.
I thought about all kinds of books I’ve read and loved the way the authors’ dialog worked toward character development, but I ended up unable to give him a definitive answer because I have no idea what he’s really looking for. Just because I love something doesn’t mean it’ll float someone else’s boat.
If you’re looking to enhance your writing, you need look no further than the books you love to read. Figure out the specifics of why you love the stories so much. Why do you love the characters? What methods did the author use to develop those characters so they leap off the page? Looking for plot structure or pacing? Examine how your favorite authors do it.
Go to your bookshelf and read with intent. After all, those who have come before us are brilliant and have kept our attention into favorite author status, so analyze the tricks they employed to capture your attention. It’s a lot cheaper than writing classes and How To books, no?