Tips on writing dialogue

It’s time for another creative writing column in the Beverley Guardian. With the excitement of the Tour De Yorkshire, the column didn’t make it into the website, so here’s the whole text. This month, it’s all about dialogue.

Dialogue

 

Well written dialogue is a joy to read. It gives your characters voice and livens up writing like nothing else.

Basics first. I’m sure you know that quotation marks frame the dialogue at the start and the end. Have a look at some of the books you own and you’ll notice that there are house styles about whether the dialogue has double quotes or single quotes and whether or not it’s indented. These conventions differ from publisher to publisher, so don’t fret over them. Just pick whatever feels most comfortable to you and stick to it.

“Dialogue that is followed by an attribution ends with a comma,” said Adam.

The line of dialogue and the attribution are all part of the same sentence, so the dialogue ends with a comma (not a full stop). If Adam has more to say, open quotation marks again and go for it.

“This bit of dialogue ends with a comma,” said Adam. “If I have more to say, I can just keep talking.”

 

While we’re talking about punctuation, conventionally, a short dash suggests someone was interrupted.

“And then I started rambling on a bit and-”

“Get to the point.”

 

An ellipsis (three dots, and only three dots, in a row) suggests that someone tailed off…

 

There is nothing more annoying than reading a conversation and not knowing which character is speaking. How do you show the reader who is speaking? Here are a few more conventions.

Start a new line of text each time the speaker changes. This is a fairly obvious one.

The easiest way to let the reader know who is speaking is to attribute dialogue. ‘Said’ is a very useful dialogue tag. It is so commonplace that the reader’s mind skims quickly over it. ‘Saidisms’ are when you use descriptive dialogue tags. They have their place, but too many descriptive tags in a row gets annoying. Used sparingly, they can have great impact. For example, if you have a lot of ‘ she said’s and suddenly there’s a ‘she whispered’ the change in tone in immediately obvious.

You can use the dialogue tag to moderate the pace of what is being said. A judiciously placed ‘he said’ will give you a pause that’s slightly longer than usual and provides a natural sounding break in the character’s speech.

Combining action with the dialogue is another handy way to show who’s speaking. The reader will automatically assume that the person who did the last action is the one who is speaking.

Jess sighed. “This is another good way to add a pause.”

(Notice that the action and the dialogue are separate sentences, so dialogue ends with a full stop.)

 

Interspersing dialogue with action is also a very useful technique for moving people around and keeping your writing ‘active’. People rarely sit still when they talk. They’re usually doing something else at the same time, or at the very least, fidgeting. Using little bits of action stops the dialogue from sounding forced. Better still, you can use the small gestures that the characters make to show how the character is feeling.

“I went to the shops today.” She picked at the sleeve of her jumper, avoiding eye contact.

Listen to how people talk – they speed up, they slow down, the interrupt each other, they pepper the conversation with their favourite phrases. No two voices speak with exactly the same rhythm and cadence. Ideally, each character should have a voice unique to them, so that when your characters speak, you should be able to tell who’s speaking even without the dialogue tags.

What if there’s a long exchange – like an argument? You can leave off the speech attributions for a short exchange and rely on the reader to keep track of the to and fro of conversation, but most people tend to lose track after four to six of these exchanges. Just add an attribution or and action to help place who is speaking.

Dialogue is a great way to impart useful bits of plot information, but take care to make it realistic and relevant. A big chunk of exposition dropped into a character’s speech is immediately noticeable, especially if they say something like “You know my brother in law, who’s name is Jerry. He’s a bit of a greedy pig and I don’t like him”. Better to split it up so that all that information comes up in the conversation.

“Then Jerry came in,” said Fran.

Liz frowned. “Jerry?”

“My brother in law.”

“The one who ate about half your birthday cake last year?”

Jenny pulled a face. “Yes. That’s the one.”

 

Use subtext. People rarely say exactly what they mean. They give evade questions, or give half responses or just lie. Use your dialogue to introduce tension – either between characters or within the character themselves. When what they say and the way they behave don’t match, the reader will immediately pick up that something is wrong.

In real life, people pause a lot and make place-holder noises like ‘um’ and ‘er’. When writing fiction, you tend to leave these pauses and noises out (they’re pretty dull) unless you have a good reason for keeping them in. If you character suddenly starts pausing and saying ‘um’, the reader will interpret it as ‘they’re hiding something’.

How do you know if your dialogue sounds realistic? The best way to check is to read it out loud. Better still, get someone else to read it out loud for you – they won’t know exactly how it was meant to sound, so they will be guided by the way you’ve written and punctuated it. If it sounds wrong to you, or worse, if they have to go back and read it again before it makes sense, then it’s time to do some editing.

 

Have you got any interesting tips on dialogue? Where do you go to eavesdrop on conversations?

 

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