When talking about writing dialogue there are two elements to consider:
- Why and how do we use it? (Part 1)
- How do we punctuate it correctly? (See Writing Dialogue: Part 2 for few tips about punctuation when writing dialogue.)
In fiction writing there needs to be a balance between dialogue, narrative and action. In some passages there will be more of one than another and the author needs to consider the rhythm of the piece, to decide if the balance is good for the style and genre.
- When looking back over your work you may find that there are too many dialogue scenes, one after the other. Use narrative or action to break them up.
- If there is a passage where the story is moving too slowly, you can use dialogue to speed it up.
- You can use dialogue or narrative to provide background information on your characters. If they are providing too many background details as they speak it can sound contrived so use narrative as well. It may be all right if it is two people catching up after not seeing each other for a long time, to fill in recent background to their lives, or even earlier, using references to shared memories but real people do not often make long autobiographical speeches so you need to break it up.
- If they are constantly ‘thinking out loud’, when they should be just thinking things over in their head, use narrative.
- Action tells us what they do but motive is usually revealed by dialogue or narrative.
Remember to ground your conversations in a scene.
Avoid bare lines of dialogue where two people are talking with no supporting text. If they are in a park, a car, or a busy supermarket, or in their own home we will picture the scene better if there are a few narrative clues. They may need to shout above background noise, they may want to avoid being overheard. You do not need an action or a description after each line of dialogue but you do need to locate them in a setting. (You might use ‘Active and passive detail’ effectively to do this.)
We were all taught at school that it was correct to write in full sentences, always! But people do not talk in full sentences. They interrupt each other. They use slang expressions and thinking-pauses or catch phrases ‘you know what I mean,’ ‘awesome’, repetition and colloquialisms and *dialect…..
We need to listen to conversations around us and observe the patterns and rhythms of real speech.
Give your characters distinct speech patterns rather than make them all sound the same.
A teenager will sound different to an elderly person; male and female characters may use different vocabulary; some characters will chatter and some may be laconic; wider or limited vocabulary might indicate education levels….
‘Umms’ and ‘Errs’ might identify a nervous character, or indicate unwillingness to say something, but keep them to a minimum or they become boring and distracting
Do not try to vary the dialogue tags too much, which can distract from the actual dialogue. ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ just disappear but keep us aware of who is speaking, especially in a long interchange. (NB You do not need to use a tag after every line but use enough so that the reader does not get lost), Occasionally they may whisper, or call but avoid too many adverbs and elaborate tags such as, ‘he muttered awkwardly,’ or ‘he pontificated ponderously.’
Do not use too much dialect or try to make a character’s speech reflect his accent in every word. It is extremely hard and tedious to read. It is enough if an uneducated or lower class character drops the odd ‘h’ and uses contractions and occasional dialect words. A Scottish character can have the odd ‘wee’ inserted into his speech to remind the reader effectively without much further use of Scottish dialect.
What is not said!
A non-verbal response is a valid part of dialogue. People can nod, or sigh, or look confused as breaks in a longer speech, and also to tell the reader how it is being received, without lengthy explanation.
Someone can change the subject or simply say nothing, maybe turning away or striding off or turning their attention to something else as an effective alternative to ‘Keith did not want to talk about that.’
What is not said can sometimes be as informative as what is!
Category: Advice and Info. Tags: Language, Dialogue, Observation.