The Art Of Writing: Talking Dialogue

So far in the Art Of Writing we’ve looked at structure, outlining and characters. In this article we’re going to examine the use of dialogue, and how to make it an effective part of the story. This will include discussing the use of dialogue tags and ways in which not using dialogue can be just as effective as when you do use it. We’ll also take a look at how to frame dialogue in such a way as to make it a part of the action, and not just a way of dumping information on the reader.

Good dialogue should do several things for your story. In addition to fleshing out the characters and revealing their not-so-obvious traits it should help you show what’s going on through the way the characters interact, rather than simply telling the reader what you want them to know. It should also help you to build tension within the narrative, which in turn will help further the plot of your story. Through effective dialogue the reader can be drawn further in to the fictitious world you’ve created, becoming more emotionally invested in the story you’re telling. Hopefully this article will help you to recognise the good and avoid the bad in your own writing.

Making It Real

There’s a big difference between the way that people talk in the real world and how they talk in books. One of the trickiest parts of writing good dialogue is making what you put on the page ‘sound’ like it’s being spoken by a real person in a real situation. For example, in the real world someone might say:

“Yo dude. Uhm, are you comin’ to the, er, to the show t’night? I, uhm, I ‘eard it’s gonna be, y’know, like totally kickin’ .”

Real world dialogue is full of contractions (it’s, they’re, etc), dropped words and letters (comin’, t’night, ‘eard, etc), verbal pauses (uhm, er, y’know, etc) and slang or colloquialisms (gonna, kickin’, etc). Of these, the first two can be used in written dialogue to develop character, while the latter two can often cause problems for both the writer and the reader, especially in terms of reader comprehension. For this reason, it’s generally best to avoid, or at the very least limit verbal pauses, slang and colloquialisms.

Written dialogue generally needs to be presented in a clearer and more intelligible way than real world dialogue. Taking our example from above, the same sentence might be written down as follows:

“Yo dude. Are you coming to the show tonight? I heard it’s gonna be totally kicking.”

Here you can see that we’ve stripped out all of the verbal pauses and most of the other artefacts of verbal communication. We’ve also made the dialogue more punchy and to-the-point. Even though it’s not true to how real people generally speak, it still gets across the meaning, and if you’ve presented your character effectively then the reader will automatically insert their own inflection and perceived ‘voice’ for the speaker. And while we’re on the subject of character presentation…

Developing Your Characters

Dialogue can be used very effectively to present your characters to the reader. For example, a highly educated speaker may be more inclined to use longer words, or more subtle concepts in their speech, while somebody raised and educated on the streets might be more direct in their speech patterns, using shorter, less complicated words and concepts. That isn’t to say that a street-raised character won’t understand or employer more complex speech, but it is worth bearing in mind that having your low-level gang-banger discussing topics of high philosophy in degree-level terms might be perceived as out of character if you haven’t already established that the same character has an appropriate background.

When writing dialogue, it’s always essential that you keep your characters in mind. Try to make their words appropriate to the character’s background, and also try to present their speech patterns according to the character’s personality; give your aggressive character speech patterns that are direct and to-the-point, while your timid characters might be more indirect with their speech, skirting around the topic without committing to anything definite. Try to imagine how the characters would speak, and then translate that to the page. Also try to capture the dynamic between the characters involved in the dialogue, especially between characters with opposing or incompatible personalities. Having said that…

Let The Words Flow

Worrying about how the characters speak and what words are appropriate can sometimes slow down the writing process. For this it’s generally advisable in the first instance just to write out the dialogue as it comes to mind and worry about tidying it up during the editing process. By simply getting the dialogue down on paper in the first draft, not only are you keeping the flow going in terms of writing your story but you are also more likely to keep the dialogue fresh; you’re more likely to come up with something inspired if you’re not worrying about dialogue structure. In the case of dialogue-heavy scenes some writers even advocate writing the dialogue first and then going back and adding the action afterwards.

Let The Dialogue Tell The Story

In and of itself, dialogue can go a long way towards setting the scene. In keeping with the writer’s adage of ‘show, don’t tell,’ good dialogue can impart far more information about what’s going on with the characters and the story than any amount of description. The way that characters speak to each other and the words they use can teach us a lot about who those characters are and their relationship to the narrative. Effective dialogue can also help to advance the story, presenting the reader with pertinent information through the characters.

That isn’t to say that the dialogue has to act as a vehicle for narrative exposition, though occasionally that may happen. Instead, try to use the dialogue as a counterpoint to the action, enhancing the scene rather than replacing or overshadowing it. If the scene you’re writing is particularly dialogue-heavy then try to break it up with appropriate action; a scene in which two characters are arguing over a point of contention could include short descriptions of their body language and the way they physically interact with each other.

Watch Your Tags

One of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced writers (myself included) is the overuse of non-standard dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is the bit that tells the reader who’s speaking, and sometimes might also include a pointer on how they’re speaking. For example:

“What’s going on with the rescue team?” Blanchard asked, adjusting his tie.

“As far as I know they’d just touched down in Afghanistan,” Mary replied, glancing at the Ops screen for confirmation. “They should be on mission within the next few hours.”

“Are there any variables we haven’t account for?” Blanchard wondered, leaning over to examine the situation reports.

“Nothing that I’m aware of,” Mary told him. “Don’t worry, we’ve got this covered.”

“Okay, no need to get possessive,” Blanchard retorted, stepping away from the desk. “I just don’t want anything to go wrong.”

This is messy dialogue, not because there’s anything wrong with the dialogue itself, but because of the explosion of descriptive tags and the use of attribution in every sentence. Within that short interchange the two characters have variously ‘asked’, ‘replied’, ‘wondered’, ‘told’ and ‘retorted’, all of which are fine if used sparingly and carefully. However, when they’re thrown together like this then all this does is remind the reader that they’re reading a story; essentially, too many varied dialogue tags can break the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Generally speaking there are only two or three tags that you will ever need: said, asked and replied. Some writers will even tell you that the last two of those are also superfluous, and that you only need said; adding a question mark to the end of a line of dialogue is a pretty effective way of making it clear that someone is asking a question, and the next response from the target of the enquiry is pretty much guaranteed to be their reply. In almost every situation in which a dialogue tag has been used, the tag can usually be replaced with the word said, with or without some descriptive flourish, and in most cases this will actually improve the flow of the dialogue.

We also don’t need to attribute every line of dialogue, especially when there are only two characters doing the talking. You can usually trust the reader to be able to keep track of who’s speaking when in a direct back-and-forth interchange. Even when there are three or more people involved in a conversation you still don’t need to attribute each line to a given speaker; through careful use of character voice and sparing use of dialogue attribution you can keep the dialogue flowing and keep the reader wrapped up in the story.

Let’s go back to our previous example and see how we can tidy it up a little.

“What’s going on with the rescue team?” Blanchard asked, adjusting his tie.

Mary glanced quickly at the Ops screen. “As far as I know they’d just touched down in Afghanistan. They should be on mission within the next few hours.”

“Are there any variables we haven’t account for?”

“Nothing that I’m aware of. Don’t worry, we’ve got this covered.”

Blanchard stepped back, hands raised in mock surrender. “Okay, no need to get possessive,” he said, “I just don’t want anything to go wrong.”

You can see straight away that this version is cleaner and smoother. We’ve gone from five attributed tags to just two, but it’s still pretty obvious who’s doing the talking. We’ve also added a little more physical action to clear up Blanchard’s reaction at the end of the dialogue; before, his ‘retort’ came across as confrontational, where as now it gives us a sense of camaraderie between the two characters.

This brings us to the final part of writing dialogue we’re going to look at today…

Tidying It All Up

Once you have the dialogue written and you’ve slotted it in and around your action (or vice versa) you’re almost done. The last thing you need to worry about is polishing the dialogue to make it stand out, to make it as near-perfect as you can.

This is usually handled as part of the editing process, when you go back and read through your manuscript to tidy up the grammar and spelling. At this stage it’s always worth taking a little longer to read through the dialogue and make sure it comes across as you intended. If the characters’ voices don’t quite seem to fit the voices you had in mind when you started, then tidy and tighten up the dialogue until they do, but don’t compromise. If the dialogue seems stilted or difficult then try reading it out loud to feel for yourself how easy it is to say.

It may even be worth recording the dialogue and then playing it back to yourself; if you can get a friend or two to help as well then all the better. There’s no substitute for actually hearing your characters’ words spoken out loud, and sometimes this technique will help you pick out problems you hadn’t noticed when the words were stuck on the page. Having somebody else read the dialogue out loud will also give you another person’s opinion on whether or not the dialogue works.

Further Reading

Of course, there are a number of other tricks and techniques that you can use to make your dialogue shine. Take a look at the following articles on the subject for some slightly different viewpoints, and also take the time to do your own reading on the subject. Pay attention to how dialogue is handled in the books and stories you read, and see how the writers you admire the most structure and craft their characters’ voices.

That’s it for now. Next time we’ll have a look at getting the details right, with some simple research techniques that will help you know more about what you’re writing.

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