Dialogue is like music; rhythm flows from its notes and pauses. By shaping the pace of your dialogue, you can make this rhythm more engaging. Plus, those annoying tags become less noticeable when you’re not hitting the same beat every time.
First, let’s look at how we can speed up or slow down.
A fast rhythm adds more tension to the conversation. That can glue readers to the page, but it will also tire them out. Here’s some dialogue with very fast pacing:
“Yes you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
If you have kids, this probably sounds familiar. People – generally immature people – often get into heated exchanges just like this one. But even without the resemblance to childish fights, a reader could tell it’s heated because:
- There is no narration woven in. With no text to slow the reader down between lines, we can only assume the speakers are responding to each other quickly.
- The lines are short. The speakers don’t have time for complex sentences.
- The speakers are echoing each other. People commonly reuse the phrasing of the person who just spoke to them. This effect becomes especially pronounced in a fast exchange.
- Commas have been omitted. If the pace was slower, the speakers would almost certainly pause after “yes” or “no.”
Other signs of a tense exchange include interruptions:
“I think you just–“
“I don’t care what you think.”
And higher volume:
“I was trying to help you.”
“You were trying to destroy my life!”
Dialogue with slow pacing lowers the tension. This gives readers a chance to catch their breath, but it will become tedious after a while.
“I hope you don’t mind if I join you. It’s been a long time.” Naya folded her blanket and set it on the dock next to Jade. She settled down and took in the ripples glowing under the last ray of light. It seemed everything was fading these days, even her. “Jade?”
“Mm hmm?” He didn’t look up from his tackle work.
“I’m wondering…” She examined her hands. “I’m worried about the kids. What will they do when they don’t have a place like this to escape to anymore? I know they’re happy now, or they say they’re happy, but it won’t be that way forever. Someday they’ll be frightened, or stressed, maybe even angry. They’ll need somewhere safe… and we won’t have a refuge for them.”
I could slow it down further, but I’m already bored. This conversation moves slowly because:
- There’s more narration. Action, description, and thoughts will create longer pauses between lines, slowing the perceived pace of your dialogue.
- The lines are full of filler. The characters use several lines just getting each other’s attention, without offering meaningful content. When Naya finally gets to the point, she speaks in long, rambling sentences. This indicates she has time to spare.
- The speakers pause frequently. There’s lots of commas, periods, and in particular, ellipses.
Though slow dialogue usually means low tension, it can have high tension too. This is the case in a dramatic pause. It’s a great way to punctuate a conversation that is otherwise fast. The easiest way to create a dramatic pause is by inserting narrative between tense lines of dialogue. You can also slow the lines themselves. Make sure the pause is tense by putting a mini plot hook before it. A question or a sign of impending conflict works well.
When Cynthia came home, she found a woman crawling in the grass behind the house. Clumps of dirt littered the yard.
Cynthia opened the back door. “What are you doing?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Yes it is, I live here.”
“You live here?” She sat up. “She didn’t wait long.”
“So she didn’t. Complain somewhere else.”
The woman crossed her arms, ignoring the grass that covered her sleeves. The wind picked up, throwing her hair across her eyes. She didn’t move to push it aside. “I bet you think your life is just perfect. That’s what I thought when I was here.”
Cynthia sighed. “Are you gonna leave, or am I gonna call the police?”
This is a high tension interchange, so fast-paced dialogue is appropriate. The conflict reaches its peak when Cynthia accuses the stranger of trespassing, making it a good time for a dramatic pause. To delay the stranger’s response and help set the mood, I inserted a couple lines of action and description.
The line of dialogue afterward is also slower. It’s a little longer, and it contains a stressed syllable. While it shouldn’t be overdone, stressing is a natural accompaniment to dramatic pausing. Stressing raises the tension while slowing the speaker down.
Pausing can also be used to increase the impact of a phrase. Do this by isolating it from the rest of the line. Compare:
“I didn’t want to hurt you”–Michael took his hand–“and I didn’t mean to be reckless. I just wanted to feel like, for once in my life, I could do anything.”
“I didn’t want to hurt you, and I didn’t mean to be reckless. I just wanted to feel like, for once in my life”–Michael took his hand–“I could do anything.”
“I didn’t want to hurt you, and I didn’t mean to be reckless. I just wanted to feel like I could do anything”–Michael took his hand–“for once in my life.”
The portion of the line that is separated by character action feels relatively more important. In the first example, the takeaway is that Michael didn’t want to hurt anyone; in the second it’s that Michael needs to feel free; and in the third it’s that Michael has felt restricted his whole life. All of those things are true in each of these lines, but the emphasis changes.
Adjusting the Pace
Let’s take a sample piece of dialogue and play with the rhythm.
“Oh good, you caught him. We have a truck waiting,” the ranger told my mom.
I held the reins tighter. “You can’t take him; he’s mine.”
“Honey, I know you really want a pet. But I’m not sure this is the best pet for you,” Mom said.
“But Mom, he followed me all the way here. He likes me.”
“He probably just wanted something to eat,” the ranger said. “He’s been wandering on his own for a while.”
“So he wants me to feed him. Can I please?” I asked.
“We don’t have any pony dragon food,” Mom said, “but they’ll have lots of food for him at the magic animal shelter.”
My pony dragon – Burny, I decided his name was – snorted a small ball of flame. I put a hand on his cheek; it seemed to calm him.
“I bet he’ll like your mac and cheese. Everyone likes that,” I said.
“He’s not coming home with us. That’s my final word,” Mom said.
Like most scenes, this could benefit from more tension. I’m going to trim it down to increase the speed. In addition, Burny’s ball of flame is a tension-inducing element that’s being wasted between two low-tension lines. I’ll move it later to give it a little more punch.
“Oh good, you caught him. We have a truck waiting.” The ranger reached to take Burny’s reins from me.
“You can’t take him,” I said.
“This isn’t the best pet for you, honey,” Mom said.
“He followed me all the way here,” I said.
“He’s probably just hungry,” the ranger said.
“So can I feed him?” I asked.
“We don’t have any pony dragon food,” Mom said.
“I bet he’ll like your mac and cheese,” I said.
Burny snorted a small ball of flame.
“He is not coming home with us,” Mom said.
This is more tense, but now it’s also monotonous in form. That will make it more tiring to read and less interesting in general. Plus, the tags are showing. Let’s tuck those in where we can and give it more texture.
“Oh good. We have a truck waiting.” The ranger reached to take Burny’s reins from me.
I held them tighter. “You can’t take him.”
“He isn’t a pet,” Mom said.
“But he followed me.”
“He’s just hungry,” the ranger said.
“So can I feed him?” I asked.
Mom shook her head. “He has to go to the shelter.”
“But…” My eyes teared up. “He’ll miss me.”
“We don’t have any pony dragon food.” Mom knelt down. “But the shelter has lots of food for him; he’ll get all the yummy treats he wants.”
“I bet he’ll like your mac and cheese,” I said. “Everyone likes that.”
Burny snorted a small ball of flame. It lit several branches on a bush nearby; we watched them curl into cinders. Then they crumpled into dust and fell.
Mom pulled me back. “He is not coming home with us.”
It’s important not to force the conversation into a predetermined rhythm; look at the content and decide what it needs. I sped up the pace near the beginning to create an anxious moment when the ranger and mom are trying to get the reins from the kid. Then I relaxed it as the mom and kid develop more rapport. That’s interrupted by the pony dragon flame. Since the flame creates a high tension moment, I drew it out by adding more description. Then I brought the conflict back with the mother’s strong reaction.
While there will be times for dialogue that is either fast or slow, varied dialogue mimics the pace of a good story. It’s tense and action-packed, then it’s relaxed, then once the reader is rested but before they’re bored, the action returns in full force. Your audience may not notice what you’re doing, but they’ll appreciate it anyway.
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