Write Your Novel : Dialogue

Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound like real people are talking? Or is it stilted and long winded? You should strive to keep dialogue real, but don’t copy real speech. If you listen to real people talking, you’ll find that most conversations are full of inanities. The point of dialogue in a story is to further the story, not give the reader a shopping list of mundane activities. Consider the following:

“Hi, Jayne.”

“Hi yourself, Rose. Nice party.”

“Not bad. Is that a new dress?”

“Yes. I just picked it up today.”

“The color is good on you.”

“Thanks. How ‘bout this weather lately.”

Can you say boring? In addition to talking endlessly about trivialities, real people very rarely use proper grammar. They have accents and use words that are unique to their geographical area. This is called idiomatic speech, dialect or patois. If you want to give your character a unique way of speaking – and you should – you can use this kind of dialogue, but use it sparingly. It breaks a reader’s concentration if he or she has to stop to figure out what the character is saying. Put in a few phrases or a common word or two, or have another character comment on the unusual accent or speech. Note, though, if everyone speaks the same way, then there is no accent – at least to them.

When giving your character a way of talking, be certain it is appropriate for their station, education, and background. You can’t have an uneducated mule driver speaking grammatically correct English unless you give an awfully good explanation as to why he is. And don’t have a lord of the realm speaking like a stable hand without an acceptable reason. The dialogue and speech rhythms have to match the character you are portraying.

When writing dialogue tags (the words that come after the quotes), you should use the words “said” or “asked” most of the time. Use another word only when the meaning of the dialogue isn’t clear:

“Don’t,” she said.

“Don’t,” she pleaded.

“Don’t,” she ordered.

“Don’t!” she screamed.

In each case, the meaning of the sentence changes significantly with the tag. In these cases, the alternate word is necessary to show the emotion. It should be accompanied by actions that further indicate what is happening in the scene.

Note: don’t use “hiss” unless the dialogue ends in a sibilant: “Yes,” she hissed.

Note: In tags, for American writing, put the noun/pronoun first and the verb second: she said. Some writers use “said she” but it is not common in American usage.

When possible, you should try to eliminate tags. They are necessary only to clarify who is speaking when multiple characters are present. You should also avoid directly addressing someone unless it’s needed for clarity. We don’t talk with our friends by starting each sentence with their names and neither should your characters:

“John, do you want to go out?”

“No, Mary, I don’t.”

“But John, I’m restless.”

“That’s too bad, Mary.”

As in the first speech example, this gets old fast. Give your characters a sense of identity through their speech and keep it real. Use contractions. Real people do and so should your characters. If there is a reason why they don’t, let the reader know why. And most people move around when they speak. Have your characters do something besides just talk.

You shouldn’t use dialogue to give the reader background information. This is called information dumping. Slip the background in other ways. Dialogue should work with actions to show emotions, not become a litany of facts – unless your character is a long-winded pompous professor who likes the sound of his own voice. And if he is, have another character interrupt him on occasion or you’ll risk losing your reader.

Internal dialogue is what the character is thinking. This type of dialogue should not be enclosed in quotes. When formatting, you may underline it to indicate italics, if the passage is short. It is not always necessary to use the “he thought” or “she wondered” with these passages. Often it is easier to change tense. If you’ve been writing in third person point of view, change the passage to first person:

He couldn’t get the door open, no matter how much he tried. How in the world am I going to get in? He kicked at the lock.

In this passage, the second sentence is obviously in his mind. No other indicators are necessary beyond the change from “he” to “I”. It can also be delineated by using italics.

Punctuation of dialogue is probably the single most common area of errors that writers make. Most of this was covered in the section on punctuation, but I’d like to emphasize some specific dialogue points here:

Weak: “Do you have to be so stubborn?” Susan asked, frowning at him.

Better: “Do you have to be so stubborn?” Susan frowned at him. (The “asked” is unnecessary as the question mark lets us know it’s a question. This gets rid of the excess tag and gives us action.)

Weak: John continued to measure the room as he said, “I’m not stubborn. I’m methodical.”

Better: John continued to measure the room. “I’m not stubborn. I’m methodical.” (The “as he said” phrase is unnecessary. It’s obvious he’s talking.)

Weak: Susan laughed at him. “Do you hear what you’re saying?” she asked.

Better: Susan laughed at him. “Do you hear what you’re saying?” (The “she asked” is completely unnecessary.)

Weak: “The car won’t start,” Susan said, “and I’m already late for work.”

Better: “The car won’t start.” Susan turned the key but heard only a click. “I’m already late for work.” (Splitting dialogue can be used to emphasize a point, but be certain you use it effectively. Put something important in there, something more than just “he said”.)

Go through your manuscript and look at your tags. Are they necessary? Can action replace the statement?


Body Parts

The last point I want to make doesn’t really have anything to do with dialogue, but it is an important point. Unless your characters happen to be zombies, please, don’t leave body parts lying around.

Her eyes dropped to the floor.

He flung his arm over his head.

Ugh. I would rather not clean this up. It sounds like something a forensic scientist needs to do. Her eyes didn’t drop to the floor. Her gaze may have dropped or she studied the toes of her boots or some other action to indicate that she is looking down, but don’t have her pretty blues rolling around on the floor. And, unless he wears a prosthetic device, don’t have him flinging his arm anywhere.

People can eye someone while still keeping their eyes in their heads. They gaze, but they don’t clash. Mouths can drop open, but they can’t drop. Only jaws can do that, and only so far as they go while still being attached. Unless you’re writing a zombie book or doing an autopsy, always keep body parts attached. Use strong verbs and correct motion to indicate movement of the body.

Dialogue checklist:

  1. Check the dialogue for information dumping.
  2. Have you shortened long-winded areas in your dialogue? (No Hamlet soliloquies allowed).
  3. Can you get rid of any tags and replace them with action?
  4. Did you start any paragraphs with tags? (don’t)
  5. Did you give each speaker a new paragraph?
  6. Have you used ellipses and dashes correctly?
  7. How smooth or stilted is the dialogue? Are more contractions needed? Fewer? What about fragments and/or run-ons? Remember, speech is not perfect.
  8. Is there too much dialect?
  9. Is the language proper for the time period, social standing and geographic location in your story?
  10. Have you checked to make certain the punctuation is correct for dialogue?
  11. Are there any body parts lying around?
  12. Have you kept dialogue tags to a minimum?
  13. Have you kept out adverbs?

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