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For Aspiring Writers

Dialogue

By Rachel Ann Nunes

Dialogue gives readers vital information about a character's background, social status, and education. Dialogue also reveals what a character is thinking or wants us to believe.

Tips:
  1. Read your dialogue aloud.

  2. Written dialogue should sound real, but has to be adjusted for reading to avoid confusion. In spoken dialogue there is too much stuttering and wandering. We cannot include all of this! Written dialogue is more focused.

  3. Use dialogue tags where necessary—don't leave us confused!

  4. Use he/she said tags most often. These are virtually invisible. Getting overly creative with the dialogue tags ("he postulated" or "she expounded") draws attention to the tags, not the dialogue. Use fewer tags for a two-person conversation.

  5. Use gestures or motion to tag dialogue.

    Instead of using:

    "But didn't you promise—" Jessie said.
    "I did nothing of the sort," Tyrone said.
    "Now, look, you two. . . " Dudley said.
    "You stay out of this," Tyrone said.

    Try:

    "But didn't you promise—" Jessie said.
    "I did nothing of the sort," Tyrone said.
    Dudley stepped between them and held up his hands. "Now look you two . . . "
    Tyrone spun on him. "You stay out of this."

    (Example taken from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.)

  6. Give each character a voice.

  7. Dialogue should move your plot forward.

  8. Dialects and improper speech can make characters more real. Don't overdo!

  9. Do not give away everything in dialogue—feed us bits at a time. Moments of open dialogue are usually saved for emotional peaks.

  10. Break up long dialogues with action and reaction. Long paragraphs are unfriendly to the eye and often boring.

  11. Don't go overboard on exposition.

    Example of Exposition:

    "I just knew that your moving here from Newport Beach, California from that little tiny apartment was the right thing to do since your husband ran away with that floozy who was pretending to be his secretary at Barker's and Son Extermination where he had worked for four years. And him taking all your money like that and leaving you with a child to raise by yourself, not to mention taking care of your mother who is desperately ill with an incurable disease that keeps you up all night taking care of her."

    "I know. And it's especially bad that he left after I co-signed on that new loan and he ran up my credit cards. Of course, he was upset finding out that Danny wasn't his son. But that shouldn't have made any difference after he's spent five years as his father. It was that stupid hussy that told him that I was pregnant when he met me—as if I could help that my dad forced me to get engaged to Herman when I lived with him in my home town of Salem, Utah, where he used to beat me. And how was I to know that Herman would tell that woman when he came to town last week to get me to pay him money I don't have? Regardless, I never loved him the way I did Charlie."

    See what I mean? Dialogue is a great way to give information, but too much ruins the entire story!

  12. Be careful of stating what the characters should already know. Like in the science fiction stories of old: "As you know, Dr. Wright, you and I have been working on this project for many weeks. And you also know that the thermo-couplings must be attached to the durofilm or there could be a huge explosion."

  13. Use tense, crisp dialogue.

  14. Go sparingly on -ly adverbs to tag dialogue. This does not mean eliminate ALL of them, but to be aware of them and to make sure they add to your story, not weaken it. Instead of telling your reader your character did something angrily, SHOW us they are angry by using speech and action. Strong dialogue makes -ly adverbs in dialogue tags almost unnecessary, except in the case of softly, slowly and other adverbs that describe the actual speaking voice.

    Consider the following (Example again taken from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. BUY AND READ THIS BOOK!):

    "You can't be serious," she said in astonishment. If you're like most authors, you write sentences like these almost without thinking. What could be easier than to simply tell the readers how a character feels? If she is astonished, you just say so—it saves all sorts of time and trouble.

    It's also lazy writing. When your dialogue is well written, describing your character's emotions to your readers is just as patronizing as a playwright running onto the stage and yelling at the audience. "You can't be serious" conveys astonishment—no explanation is needed. And when you explain dialogue that needs no explanation, you are writing down to your readers, a sure-fire way to turn them off. The theatergoer might or might not walk out of the theater when the playwright runs on stage; the reader who feels patronized will almost certainly close the book. Once again, RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN.

    "I find that difficult to accept," she said in astonishment.

    Here the explanation does let your readers know that your character is astonished. But you don't want them to know the fact, you want them to feel the emotion. You want your readers to be as astonished as she is, and the only way to do that is to have her say something your readers can imagine themselves saying when they're astonished. "I find that difficult to accept," doesn't quiet do it.

    And if you tell your readers she is astonished when her dialogue doesn't SHOW astonishment, then you've created an uncomfortable tension between your dialogue and your explanation. Your dialogue says one thing; your explanation, something slightly different. True, your readers probably won't notice—the truth is, only editors and reviewers really notice these things. But your readers will be aware, perhaps subconsciously, that something is wrong. And that awareness will undermine their involvement in your book.

    Think about it. There are as many different ways to be astonished (or angry or relieved or overjoyed) as there are people. The way we react under the influence of strong emotions is one of the things that makes us who we are. If you tell your readers your character is astonished, all they will know is that she is astonished. But if you show HOW she is astonished through her dialogue or through a bit of action tagged to the dialogue, then your readers will know a little more about her.

    She dropped the whisk, splattering meringue up the cupboard door. "You can't be serious."

    See what I mean. And this is only the beginning of invaluable help that you can find in writing books. So get to the library or bookstore and get reading!