Let’s Talk Dialogue

So, you want to write a book. We have been tackling the five Ws and the H … that’s What, When, Where, Why. Who, and How. We’ve already delved into the five W’s — What, When, Where, Why, and Who. And we’ve already started discussing the odd letter — H — How. We discussed the basics of journaling, poetry, and prose — all part of the How.

One of the hardest things for a writer, however, is dialogue, also part of the How. There are a couple of reasons why.

First, we write differently than we speak. As writers we want the words to flow correctly. As speakers we talk in dialects with fractured sentences and almost non-existent form. We might even have a tendency to ramble or speak over each other all the time. You might hear “um” and “er” a lot and conversations often jump from one topic to another (and back again) with no warning.

That’s fine in the real world — we don’t even notice it — but hopeless for dialogue in a novel. Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating a real-life conversation. It’s about giving an impression of it. And, yes, improving on it.

If fiction is like real life with the dull bits taken out, the same thing is true of fictional conversations. So the role of the writer is to select what’s important and distill it to its very essence.

Dialogue should also have a meaning. It could be a chance at giving information. It can be a source of conflict. It can help develop your characters. But, above all, it has to move your story forward.

Dialogue should also be concise. Never use ten words when five words will do. And if you can get the job done in three words – or even with a simple gesture like a shrug – so much the better.

Why is being concise so important?

Because it keeps readers reading. If they get bored with a rambling dialogue they will either skip over it and perhaps miss some vital clues to your story line or, worse case, simply stop reading.

It is important, however, to put your characters in character when they speak. For example, you wouldn’t have an uneducated slave speaking the King’s English or a new immigrant speaking full, coherent sentences. You wouldn’t have a Northerner use “y’all” unless they had Southern roots.

Make sure the words a character says are a natural extension of their personality. When putting words into the characters’ mouths, you just need to make sure the dialogue fits their personalities. The kindly old lady won’t say anything too mean. Her mean neighbor won’t be kind when he opens his mouth. The big-head will brag and the joker will have everyone laughing. The optimist … well, you get the idea. An educated character will have more words (and fancier words) at his or her disposal than a not-so-educated one. A dockworker will probably swear more than a school teacher – and won’t care as much (or know as much) about grammar. A physics professor will likely throw the odd scientific term into his or her speech. An artist will have plenty of words to describe colors.

Note it’s perfectly acceptable to use bad grammar and poor word choice when writing dialogue. It won’t reflect badly on your own writer’s voice because it’s understood it’s the character speaking. Just don’t go over the top. Also recognize in real life, we all speak differently to different people. And it’s no different with a character in a novel.

Again it comes down to knowing your characters and research.

A harder part of dialogue, however, is what is known as tagging. Simply, tagging is attribution.

Dialogue tags are: he said, she asked and simple statements like that. They’re useful little things. But beware of overusing them. Writing dialogue with a tag after every single line will make it sound like a game of ping-pong and turn off your readers. If you just have two people talking for an extended period and your reader can readily discern who is speaking, you don’t need to continually add the tag. But you also need to beware of using too few tags. Why? Because there’s nothing more annoying for a reader than having to count back lines to figure out who’s speaking.

Another trick is to stick to simple dialogue tags – like “said” and “asked. While I agree most of the time, dialogue should also show emotion. Sometimes using tags such as exclaimed, interjected or screeched makes the dialogue sound amateurish … but not all the time.

Adverbs make it sound amateurish, too (as in, “Emily said excitedly”). If you want to demonstrate Emily’s excitement, describe her fidgeting in her chair or bouncing on the balls of her feet while she speaks. Again, I suggest caution. The description could take away from the dialogue.

Here are two examples.

“Look, Mom,” said Kate, reaching out her hand. “Heaven is shining through!” I actually changed it to: Kate reached out her hand. “Look, Mom. Heaven is shining through!”

In another instance, I wrote, “Not sure, but pretty sure,” I said with a big smile. Conventional wisdom suggests it should be something like, “Not sure, but pretty sure,” I said. A big smile flashed across my face.

In both cases — actually in most cases — the extension to the tag, in my mind, adds to the dialogue, gives it movement or direction, shows more than just the words.

Separating that action leaves the words stranded. I just read a manuscript that did exactly that. Each quote was followed by “said” and a separate sentence describing the circumstances why the quote was uttered. Personal opinion. It drove me crazy and in some cases the description further diluted the entire conversation. It’s a call you will have to make.

Another important rule of novel writing is to keep the readers reading. Boring them is likely to have the opposite effect, which is why it’s so important to make your dialogue flow seamlessly. Varying the length of lines matters.

As an example, if Jack says something using half a dozen words; then Jane replies using a sentence of the same length; then Jack says something back using another short sentence — it can all sound a bit same-ish. A better conversation would look like this, Jack says something; Jane replies using a longer sentence — maybe a couple of them; Jack just shrugs here; so Jane says something else, something long again that goes on and on and on … until Jack cuts her short with a quick one-liner.

It is important to break up the dialogue with little snippets of action. You can do this by simply freezing a passage of dialogue for a few sentences while you describe the sound of the rain hitting the window; or show what one of the characters is thinking; or write anything at all except another line of dialogue! Again, as a cautionary tale, don’t break up the conversation without moving the story forward.

Some final dialogue notes. Avoid writing dialogue that’s obvious and give characters an agenda.

Dialogue can be “told,” not just “shown”. Shown dialogue is where you write down what the characters say, word for word, and put the speech inside quotation marks. Told dialogue is where you summarize a conversation using regular prose.

Most of the time, shown dialogue is the variety you want. Sometimes, though, telling the reader about a conversation without writing the dialogue word for word is better.

Let’s say a conversation goes on for some time, but only the beginning and end are interesting. The solution is to show the first part of the dialogue; summarize the boring bit in the middle; and switch back to showing for the final part.

Last but not least, let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate dialogue properly. It’s not a very sexy topic – but an important one to get right nonetheless.

The odds are you’re a keen reader (most novelists are). So you really don’t need me to tell you the mechanics of how to set out dialogue on the page. But you do have to know when and where to use single or double quotation marks and dashes or ellipses at the end of a line of dialogue. Rule of  thumb, single quotes are used inside quotes bracketed with double quotation marks. Use ellipses to indicate a character’s words trailing off. If they were cut off, use a dash.

This series has been the short version about writing and the writing process to get you motivated, thinking, and starting your writing journey. I hope it helped.

There is a lot more detail on each of the spokes in your writing wheel. If you have a specific question, let me know and I’ll try to address it down the road.

THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that writes the story you were meant to tell. And the world needs your story because the world needs your voice. — Kerry Washington

About wisdomfromafather

I'm just an ordinary guy walking along the journey of life.
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3 Responses to Let’s Talk Dialogue

  1. Yo, dawg, what up, we be rappin’
    on sundry matters doth pertain
    to dialogue, Bubba, so don’t be nappin’
    through the concepts we shall now explain.
    What’s said’s not verbal intercourse,
    but rather, sense of time and space,
    where anachronism is enforced
    with a coldly brutal grace.
    If you dig it, you’re a hippie,
    and that was, like, so yesteryear.
    In the fifties cold was nippy,
    and you dare not say that ‘strange’ is ‘queer’.
    I think historical fiction is the way;
    at least slang’s not changing every day!


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