Do you know many people who speak with this type of evenly-spaced monotone? Probably not many (which is what makes this scene so funny). The truth is, people speak in different tones, volumes, and speeds depending on their personalities and situations. When writing dialogue, you need to know how to convey those differences so your dialogue matches the pace of the scene.
Pacing is the speed of a scene. Whether or not they realize it, readers expect certain types of scenes to flow at different paces.
For example, action-packed or high-intensity scenes usually move quickly. How do you make words move quickly? Short sentences. No filler. Staying in the action. Love scenes, however, can take their time by setting the scene, building tension, and finally – maybe? – providing the emotional breakthrough. (Raise your hand when you see what I did there.)
What Does This Have to Do with Dialogue?
Everything! Dialogue is part of the scene, so it needs to match the physical and emotional intensity of what’s happening to and around your characters. As scenes transition from description or action to dialogue, the flow should be seamless – dialogue doesn’t interrupt the scene, it’s part of it. It should add to what’s happening in that particular scene while continuing to move the plot forward.
How Do You Keep the Pace with Dialogue?
There are two main parts of dialogue that will help you create or maintain the pace of a scene. Both of these need to be understood and used properly. These elements are:
- The Words
- The Punctuation
Have you ever had a fight with your sibling? What types of things did you say to each other? What about when you’re hanging out at Christmas with the whole family, opening presents and eating too much food – do you use the same types of words as when you’re arguing? I doubt it.
What your characters say will help your reader hear the tone of voice and speed of the conversation. Consider the following dialogue between a mother and her son.
“Sugar bear, what are you doing?”
“Help me in the kitchen then?”
The sweet words convey a sense of peace and languidness. Mother and child don’t seem to be in a rush. But what if we change only three words and added one?
“Michael Scott Simpson, what are you doing?”
“Help me in the kitchen, then.”
If you’re like most people, you read those words more quickly and with a harsher tone. The writer didn’t have to tell you how to read it or what emotions to attach to each section of dialogue – words did it. By selecting the right words, you can change the pace the dialogue.
Here’s a classic example of the power of punctuation. These words can create two different sentences: woman without her man would be nothing.
Woman, without her man, would be nothing.
Woman: without her, man would be nothing.
Likewise, punctuation is one of the tools you can use to create the right pace for your dialogue. Look at these bits of dialogue:
“I don’t know, I guess I could. It’s been so long … I’m not sure. We could try.”
“I don’t know. I guess I could. It’s been so long—I’m not sure! We could try.”
Do you see the difference? The first sentence includes pauses (commas for short pauses, ellipses for longer pauses). By adding an em dash and exclamation point, the intensity (and speed) of the dialogue changes.
One final element that can affect the pace of your scene is the dialogue tag – he said, she whispered, I asked. Tags, however, deserve their own post, so I’ll be writing about those in Dialogue Part 3 – Tags on Wednesday, July 12. Stop back then for the final chapter on dialogue!
Have you ever read dialogue that captured your attention? What did you like about it? What’s the most difficult part for you when it comes to writing dialogue?
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