Dialogue. It can be a joy to write; it can be a struggle. But unless you’re writing a pretty unusual book, it’s nearly always necessary in a work of fiction, even if you use it sparingly. Some writers find it easy, but if you’re having a hard time of it, here are some tips to help you tackle those tricky but vital passages of dialogue.
I don’t want to teach granny to suck eggs, so I hope you don’t think it’s patronising if I explain what dialogue tags are. They’re those little bits that go ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ or ‘he whispered’ or ‘she hissed’ or … you get the picture.
Be careful with dialogue tags – be aware of where, when and how you’re using them. One common mistake is for a writer to use things as dialogue tags that, technically speaking, can’t be. A good example is ‘he smiled’. You can’t ‘smile’ a word. That’s very easily remedied, though – a small change in punctuation is all that’s required!
‘You look amazing,’ he smiled.
‘You look amazing.’ He smiled.
You still tell the reader that he smiled. You just do it in a grammatically correct way. Win! Or if he smiles before he speaks, just swap the sentences around.
He smiled. ‘You look amazing.’
But that’s not the only consideration when it comes to dialogue tags. Something else that makes dialogue seem clunky is when the writer uses too many tags. You don’t need to write ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ every time. The dialogue goes to and fro and does its own talking.
He smiled. ‘You look amazing.’
‘Sam will be so jealous of those gloves.’
‘I’m looking forward to seeing her outfit. It sounded crazy.’
Of course, it’s important that your readers don’t get confused about who is talking, so you will need to use dialogue tags wisely.
Be focused and purposeful with your dialogue. In real life, conversations meander; they go off-topic all the time. You want your dialogue to sound natural, but bear in mind that it shouldn’t replicate real life exactly. When it comes down to it, even if one of your characters is nervous or hesitant, you don’t write all the ‘umm’s and ‘errr’s of real-life speech. In a similar way, you don’t need to faithfully write out every turn of a conversation. You might do at first, to get inside your characters’ heads and find their voices, but you’ll need to edit a lot of that out.
Dialogue should serve a purpose. It needs to move the story forwards. Sure, it will reveal more about the characters, but that shouldn’t be its sole purpose. We don’t need a protracted discussion about Rembrandt in order to learn that Alex is gullible and Pat is sarcastic. The conversation needs to advance the plot, too.
Ask yourself why your characters are saying what they are saying. Who needs to hear it? (Hint: the answer to that shouldn’t be ‘the reader’!)
You’ve probably heard the axiom: ‘Show, don’t tell.’ It applies to dialogue just as much as to narrative. Don’t have characters saying things just because you need to find some way of telling the reader. If none of the other characters need to hear those things, the fact that someone is saying them at all will come across as odd, and make your dialogue sound stilted and artificial. Another example of this is having characters ask questions just so that you can use the answers to explain things to the reader.
‘So, where are you headed?’
[Cue lengthy explanation about having a magic dagger and being on a quest to rescue your birth father from torture at the hands of alien pterodactyls. At the end of the explanation, lo and behold! The questioner joins our heroine on her worthy quest!]
‘So, where are you headed?’
Marcia looked down. Saying ‘I don’t know’ will sound dumb, won’t it?
‘I don’t know.’
Susan looked amused and puzzled, but didn’t say anything.
‘I mean, I’m just … it’s a long story. Just following my nose, I guess. Chilling a bit. Taking each day as it comes.’
Susan smiled. ‘Know the feeling. Having a bit of an adventure. That’s cool. That’s kind of where I am, too. Was working with the cattle out at Arseendofnowheresville, but that was just seasonal. Are you heading into Bigcity next?’
‘Well, yeah. I was thinking I probably would.’
‘Might see you on tomorrow’s coach, then.’
[The questioner and heroine end up travelling together, and the quest is revealed gradually as they go.]
I don’t pretend to be a great writer, or even a good one, but I’m trying to illustrate how you can avoid an info-dump in dialogue while still moving the story on. Our heroine also has to think on her feet and decide how much to reveal to Susan. A better writer might interject with more of her thoughts, or use some body language.
Marcia fiddled with her bracelet. She was used to people thinking she was crazy, but she didn’t want to tell Susan about her father and the alien pterodactyls. She was afraid Susan would laugh at her.
Having characters state the obvious doesn’t usually work. Someone who is bereaved is unlikely to tell you that they’re ‘devastated’ unless you’re a journalist and they’re giving a quotation to the local paper. Instead, their devastation will be obvious by the way they look or the way they behave. They might try to form sentences but be incoherent or trail off. Having a character talk about how they are feeling can work occasionally, but it’s important not to overdo it. ‘I love Larry with all my heart’ conveys information, but it isn’t terribly moving to read. Similarly, people aren’t usually given to making bland factual statements like ‘I love beer’ or ‘That car is massive’.
If your character does happen to talk in a very factual and ‘flat’ manner, make it part of their personality and explore why they express themselves like that.
In reality, good dialogue is often layered with implication. Which has more impact – ‘I’m going to put your head through that wall,’ or ‘Nice paintwork. Be a pity to ruin it with a bloodstain’? Of course, either is perfectly valid, but whichever option you choose, at whichever end of the spectrum, there has to be a reason for it (I’m coming back to purpose again!) – it all helps to build up the character. Is she given to making bald threats or does she fancy herself as a bit of a wit?
If your dialogue sounds stiff or laborious, go through and cut as much as possible. Ask yourself how much of it someone would actually say in real life.
It’s tempting to concentrate so much on one character’s voice that you forget about the other person (or people) in the dialogue, leaving some characters flat and under-developed. Remember that someone’s use of language can change depending on who they’re talking to and how that person is responding. In my rather facile Marcia/Susan example above, they both slip into a casual, offhand way of talking, with short sentences. We get the impression that they’re a similar age and at a similar stage in life. If ‘Susan’ had been an elderly gentleman – ‘Albert’, for example – the conversation would probably have gone quite differently. Not that Marcia’s accent and vocabulary would change drastically, but Albert would have responded differently and … well, try writing it for yourself and see what you think!
Ask yourself how your characters respond to each other and how that affects the direction the dialogue takes.
A character’s ‘voice’ is about more than their accent or dialect. It’s not just about quirks of speech. Their background and upbringing will have an effect on the way they talk; so too will their motivations, their needs, their principles and their belief systems. These need to be consistent; Marcia might try to talk posh if she meets the Mayor of Bigtown, but her underlying motivation is still to free her father, and her vocabulary is still influenced by the fact that she studied politics.
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