DIALOGUE

There are several basic components of writing dialogue. At its most fundamental level, dialogue is about characters conversing using the spoken word. As with anything in your story or book, it has to have the goal of revealing character or furthering the plot.

 

Characters

Your characters can be office workers in London or hobbits in the Shire. They can be hobbits in London, or office workers in Hobbiton.

Doesn’t matter.                    

But each has a voice with which they communicate.

In the real world, whenever we engage in a conversation, we have an agenda – whether we realise it, or not. We engage in a conversation wanting to appear a certain way, or to achieve a certain end.

Everything we say is subsequently designed to achieve that end. The characters in your fiction are no different. They all have a motive. Or, at least, they should do. Your job, as the writer is, as we have said, to either reveal a little more of the character’s motivation or to further the plot.

So, number one, you must have an idea of what motivates the character to engage in the conversation they are about to have. Each character will have their own motivation, their own goal. Even the most incidental character must have a reason for being, for existing in this particular book/story and, by extension, chapter/scene/ part of this particular scene. If not, you have to question what they are doing in this book/story/chapter/scene/part of this particular scene. If you can’t come up with an adequate answer, stick them in another book. They won’t mind. This one was never theirs to begin with.

As always, the golden rule of writing, is to keep the reader reading. Make it interesting. So, in dialogue, make it tense, make it funny, make it difficult for each character to achieve their goals. If each of their goals is incompatible – so much the better.

Most of all, let the character speak. Let them be themselves. They are not your mouthpiece. You are theirs.

 

Dialogue

The content of the dialogue itself, the words the characters say, is not to replicate real life dialogue – otherwise it would be full of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘errs’ and all sorts of round-the-houses nonsense. In real life, we filter those out. In writing, they just become irritating. What you want is the essence of what the character is saying – just the essence. Unless, of course, a round-the-houses sort of speaking is telling the reader about the character or furthering the plot. Then it is valid. If it does neither of these things, it has to go. If there is anything in your book/story to edit the life out of, it is dialogue.

 

Bless its little cottons.

Also, people in real life speak in different ways, have different verbal mannerisms. Try and get some of these into your dialogue. The dialogue needs to sound natural for that particular character in that particular situation.

A warning: try to limit your use of stutterers and pirates.

Be a bit subtle, eh.

 

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is the verb and, dare I say it – adverb - that comes after the spoken section of the dialogue. Once you have established which two people are talking, you can dispense with dialogue tags for a while, but you do need to bring them in every now and then to orient your reader, remind them, in case they lose track. There is nothing more frustrating for a reader than to have to re-read a section of dialogue to remind them who is speaking. A judicious use of dialogue tags is a must – the key word here being ‘judicious’.

 

There is a school of thought that the only dialogue tag you ever need is said – he said, she said, etc. And that same school of thought also says do not ever use an adverb. Here’s the thing, if a character is angry, and you have found yourself writing he said, angrily, have a look at the words you have put into your character’s mouth. Are they angry words? If not, they should be. Make the words angry, and you can dispense with the adverb. The same goes for all the other adverbs.

As, always, though, there being no absolutes – do whatever works for you.

Movement

If you simply had one dialogue line after another, you are placing the reader in the middle of two talking heads. And, as in real life, that is never fun. The over-riding rule of writing fiction is to make it interesting. And talking heads, in general, are not interesting. Break up your dialogue with actions. We all have bodies, faces, idiosyncrasies. We all move when we talk, do things. I talk with my hands constantly, other people shuffle from one foot to the other when they are nervous, other people fiddle with things, look away, look down, run their hand through their hair, stuff like that. Break up your dialogue lines with action, have the character interact with the setting you have placed them in, responding in a physical manner, perhaps, to the words they have just heard. These physical beats tell the reader more about the character.

And that is your only job, after all.

 

Direct/indirect speech

There are two ways of portraying dialogue in fiction. Direct speech is when the writer shows the words of the characters as they are spoken:

‘Not another thing about dialogue,’ the bored reader said.

and indirect, or reported, speech:

 

The reader was bored, and muttered his displeasure regarding the interminable dialogue lesson.

 

Direct and indirect speech is not dissimilar concept to the use of show/tell in fiction, and is another tool for the writer to vary their writing.

 

Again, these are ways of varying your portrayal of a dialogue scene. And, of course, variation is key in keeping the reader interested.

 

Formatting

Formatting dialogue is really important.

Some simple rules:

A new line for each speaker.

Single inverted commas enclosing the dialogue (Unless you are from the Land of Trump – my sympathies – where they like to use the double inverted comma wotsit) with a comma before the closing one, if you are using a dialogue tag. If not, a full stop:

             ‘I can’t believe it, not something else to remember,’ the bored reader said.

             ‘I can’t believe it, not something else to remember.’

You can also split the line of dialogue, to vary the pattern:

             ‘I can’t believe it,’ the bored reader said, ‘not something else to remember!’

 

Also:

             The bored reader said: ‘I can’t believe it, not something else to remember!’

 

Again, variation, variation, variation . . .

 

Some do’s and don’ts

People will say and do anything to get what they want in real life. Fiction is no different. Do have your characters lie, cheat, mislead, all that sort of stuff. Lying is great.

People, in general, speak in contractions. Contractions are an easy way for dialogue to appear natural. Do this, if it fits the character.

Do have conflict in your dialogue. Characters constantly agreeing with each other is no fun to read.

Do not use your characters to preach your own personal beliefs. Allow them to be themselves. Have some respect. They are not your mouthpiece.

Known as ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ – do not have your characters tell another character something that character already knows, just to convey information to the reader.

 

Variation

As always in your writing, the only goal is to make it interesting. Variation is the key.

Use:                                                   direct/indirect speech

                                                           

                                                           physical beats

                                                           conflicting motivations

                                                           dialogue that reveals character and furthers the plot

                                                           that bounces off the page

and you won’t go too far wrong.

But not all at once, not all of them every time. The key is balance. Every word in your book or story needs to be judged and weighed on three criteria:

  • Is it helping me say what I want to say

  • Is it the best way to say it

  • Does it need to be there at all (think clarity and economy here)

 

Editing

Speaking of Clarity and Economy, dialogue needs to be absolutely edited to death – till all that is left are the words that need to be said. No ums and ahs or errs or pirates and stutterers. Here is an example of Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant August 1914. An interaction between a soldier and a battlefield surgeon, their identities already established, therefore Solzhenitsyn chooses not to use dialogue tags:

 

‘Have you finished with them now?’[the soldier]

‘God, there were so many!’ [the surgeon]

‘Go and sleep then.’

‘I have to rest and relax first. The work makes you tense.’ The doctor yawned. ‘It weakens you.’

‘But it does you good to relax, doesn’t it?’

‘No, nothing does you any good; you just weaken.’

 

Notice how concise this is. Not one extraneous word. Clarity. Economy. It could have been written like this:

 

‘I was wondering, have you finished with them now?’

‘You wouldn’t believe how many there were!’

‘Perhaps it would be better if you went to sleep for a while?’

‘I think you might be right. This work really makes you tense.’ The doctor began to yawn. ‘It weakens you so much.’

‘But I’m sure is must do you some good to relax, doesn’t it?’

‘You’d think so, but no, not really. In my experience, you just get weaker and weaker.’

Solzhenityns’s again:

‘Have you finished with them now?’[the soldier]

‘God, there were so many!’ [the surgeon]

‘Go and sleep then.’

‘I have to rest and relax first. The work makes you tense.’ The doctor yawned. ‘It weakens you.’

‘But it does you good to relax, doesn’t it?’

‘No, nothing does you any good; you just weaken.’

 

Notice the difference. The second example is okay. It says exactly the same thing, perhaps even in a more natural way. But the first – Solzhenitsyn’s words – has so much more impact. He has his characters say all that needs to be said. And he says it in almost half as many words.

 

The Golden Rule

As always in writing, have fun with it. Don’t get all hung up and stressed out. It’s only words. And putting words in the mouths of other people and making them say stuff is great fun.

       Oh, the other golden rule:

                                               READ IT OUT

That goes for anything you have written, but particularly dialogue. Read it out aloud, and you will hear where to split the sentence, when the dialogue sounds unnatural, if it fits the character, and a million other things. Dialogue is an aural thing. It is meant to be heard. Just not by other people – that’s where you get all sorts of strange looks.

Trust me, I know 😊