Writing tools are only as effective as the writer who wields them. Because dialogue is such an important aspect of characterisation in creative writing – and should be in good business writing, too – there’s an array of sub-tools that go with it. Dialogue brings your characters out of the page, but it’s your job to keep things interesting.
Just like pacing is essential for good prose flow, it’s crucial in written dialogue. It’s one of the key differentiators between speech that’s interesting to read, and speech that drags. To use conversations more in your professional storytelling, it’s important that you’re thinking about the dialogue you use strategically. Pacing it right is the best way of doing that.
Small talk, boring talk and fast talk
Every single thing you put down on a page needs to serve the purpose of the piece of content you’re creating. In order to be meaningful and reach audiences on an emotive level, that purpose should ideally be something slightly deeper and more specific than ‘sell my services’ or ‘rank higher on Google’. Let’s say your content goal is ‘To leave the reader understanding of and interested in the restaurant scene of Rome.’ Now, think back to a conversation that made you feel that same way.
We’ve already looked at how much dialogue can do for your content message, but just like real-life conversations differ, you need to be mindful of the speech you’re putting down on paper. And this is where the underlying purpose of your text re-enters the picture.
If you know what you want the reader to be left with, you’ll also know how to edit the dialogue you want to include in your writing.
Let’s say the reason you first lit up on Rome’s restaurants was when, after a long and arduous span of small talk, the speaker gave a vivid and lush rendition of the atmosphere and food of a real dining gem in the city. You remember the exact words they used, and how the explanation took you by the hand and led you into that room, sitting in front of those dishes. Now you know which parts of the conversation to keep in – and which to leave out. Skip the small talk, drop the boring stuff, but keep the build-up. By re-pacing the conversation you want to use, you’ve essentially edited time, and done your reader a huge favour in the process.
What if the pacing is made-up?
There is a well-established consensus that professional content needs to be truthful – and truthful alone. It’s non-fiction, informative, fact-based communications. While integrity is certainly key to building a meaningful connection with your readers, no one minds a bit of make-believe for the sake of entertainment. That’s why we watch movies and read books, right?
The beauty of storytelling is that you can keep in the good stuff from real life, and simply fill in the gaps with creativity.
As long as you’re staying true to the message you want to convey, making dialogue faster, slower, sharper or fuller, is really just about making it more interesting to consume.
If the pacing in real life was boring, but the message was good, you should do something about the flow of the conversation you include in your content. Perhaps a powerful side note in an otherwise mundane Monday morning exchange made you reflect. Maybe a family member took all sorts of turns to get to the core of what they were trying to say. Your reader gets the privilege of skipping to the good bits of the stories.
How do you find the right pace?
The best way of checking whether your conversation is too slow, too fast, too dull or too incoherent, is to simply read it out loud. Really envision the person or people speaking – your reader will be doing that, too – and put yourself into the conversation, like a bystander who’s just listening in. You’ll quickly notice any jags or lags that need to be corrected.
Longer passages can be good, if you don’t want to give the reader the luxury of breathing space. Remember, dialogue is a characterisation tool at its core, and so sometimes the purpose of the written conversation is to give more depth to the person speaking:
If he could, my boss would take the long way around. The beauty of it was that, while you were always aware of the seconds slipping by in the back of your mind, you couldn’t help but join him on the walk.
“You know, when I was growing up, we lived next to a few acres of farmland – I remember the straight, sharp lines, shooting past our garden and how the farm owner could, somehow, always tell that we’d overstepped, no matter where he was on his property. So this one morning, I’m walking along, making sure to stay on my side of the border, so to speak, and I see the farmer approaching on his tractor, this beautiful, robust John Deere that always shimmered in the morning sunlight. I keep walking, he keeps approaching, and, you know, eventually I realised that he was trying to talk to me, so I turned around and waited for him, and he came over on this great big beast. Once he stopped the engine, it was dead still. I mean, you could just touch the silent vastness all around us. The farmer comes over to me, and I’m expecting another reprimand, you know, ‘You were here and you should be there and humph and brummm,’ but then he walks up to me and he just smiles. And from his pocket, he pulls out the reddest, shiniest, most beautiful apple you’ve ever seen – from his garden, you know, he had the most gorgeous orchard – and tells me to have a good day at school. And then he gets back on his tractor and drives off. So with that, this farmer basically taught me that interactions are games of chance. You have no idea what’s coming, no matter what you think.”
Of course, this piece of dialogue could have been two sentences long. But the pacing does a whole lot more than just tell a life story of being open and non-judgmental in communication. It goes to show that the narrator’s boss likes sharing anecdotes. That he’s patient. And that the narrator themself is pulled into the narratives, because of their richness. It’s unlikely the story would have been as effective in two brief strokes of conversation.
Pacing in dialogue is about purpose. When you know why you want to include bits and pieces of conversation, you can tailor them accordingly. And by working that flow into the whole of the content you’re creating, the reader will stay alert and intrigued by the dialogue – just as we do in real life when a speaker manages to take hold of us and steal our attention.
Want to use the right pacing in your business writing dialogue? Check out the 11-minute workshop here.