“He said,” and then “she said,” and then “they said…” The preceding is a good way to lose our readers. How can we, as writers, make our dialogue exciting, compelling and unique to the characters?
Let’s begin by defining the role of dialogue in fiction. There are two main purposes for dialogue:
— to show character development
— to move the plot forward
Dialogue is not an opportunity for the writer to manipulate characters in order to fill in extraneous information. Example: Sherry stared at Bill and said, “You know, of course, that there used to be a well right where we’re standing.”
This example does not show anything about the character or the plot, only about the author’s inability to properly incorporate necessary (or not) backstory.
Now to the content of dialogue. What do we include and what do we omit? When people talk, they use a lot of filler words that are almost always unnecessary in writing. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” So it is with writing dialogue. We must capture the essence and leave out the dull parts. We must be exact and careful. We must give the reader the benefit of the doubt as far as being able to understand our intent.
Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating real speech. It’s about giving an impression of it and also of improving upon it.
Each of our characters needs a unique voice. Not necessarily quirky, although sometimes that works, but distinctive. We need to ask ourselves who the character is. What does he do for a living? How much education does she have? What level of society did he grow up in? Does she use certain unique speech patterns?
• Find a couple of characters from a magazine or online from from a stock photo site and let the person in the photo speak to you.
• Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it reads smoothly and easily.
If the characters are from different language backgrounds, research the juxtaposition of their words. For example, in English we would say, “I can’t speak German very well,” while in German, the order of the words in translation would be, “I can’t very well German speak.” We may have to play with the order a bit to make it readable, and not overdo dialect and accent, but if we take all these character details into consideration, each one will speak differently.
Next, let’s look at the technique of writing dialogue.
Just as every scene in a story needs conflict, so every section of dialogue requires conflict to keep the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t have conflict, it should be cut.
It’s important to vary speech patterns in dialogue, but it should always be as brief as possible. If there’s more to say, the character can tell it in bytes, not all at once. Connected to this, there’s the issue of white space. The way the speech is set out on the page will determine how easy it is to read and how appealing it is to the reader. If a speech goes for pages in solid paragraphs, many readers won’t bother to read it.
“And then,” she said, “there are speech tags.” We only need enough of them to maintain clarity, and it’s best to stick with said, even though our grade six teacher may have taught us otherwise. The word said becomes invisible and thus easy to read. It doesn’t take us out of the action as would retorted or maligned.
On that same topic, avoid the adverbs. Instead of writing, “…she said sweetly,” let the character show the emotion behind her words: “she said, and winked at him.”
We can often use beats of action to maintain clarity in speech. “Don’t touch that!” Ruby grabbed the doll and held it to her chest.
If we study good dialogue, we can imitate it and will soon be able to write it well ourselves.
Finally, we must learn how to properly use punctuation in dialogue. It’s not difficult, although it feels cumbersome at first, but with practice it can become second nature. There are online sites if we’re unsure, as well as lots of good resource books. I’ve recently read a couple e-books that were poorly punctuated, and it’s distracting and frustrating. We want our work to be as polished as possible.
Online dialogue punctuation sites:
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (includes differences between Canadian, British and American usage)
Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor (a wonderfully light-hearted grammar book)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (the famous old standby)
All the best as you practice and perfect your dialogue. See you next month when we talk about Setting.