Tuesday, June 15, 2010


posted by Ruby Johnson

I’ve taken a few writing classes that included dialogue and what I’ve discovered is there is a difference between real people talking and writing dialogue. The dialogue has to be better.

Have you ever read a book where the characters all sounded the same, the protagonists never changed despite the circumstances or, maybe, exposition was included in the dialogue? Did you want to finish the book? These are all mistakes authors make in dialogue.
Jim Trent says (How to Write a Novel) there are six purposes for dialogue in a novel:

• reveal character,

• show emotion,

• move the story forward,

• provide information,

• establish setting,

• breakup long passages of narrative.

An example of this is shown in one sentence. It reveals character, shows emotion, and moves the story forward. John pounded his fist on the table, “Damn it, Jason!”  The reader wants to know what Jason has done to cause John to pound his fist on the table.

Do Not Try To Find Other Words For “Said.”
Said is a standard in writing. Readers are so used to seeing this word, they rarely notice it. Avoid the use of adverbs as dialogue tags such as he added slyly, she remarked gently or she shrieked loudly. Their use means the author is trying to tell an emotion that the character does not show and can be very disruptive to a reader, distracting from the dialogue.The writer’s goal should be to make himself invisible. When characters shriek, express disagreement or do dissertations, the reader cannot help but notice. He is made aware that this is not an experience he is living through the author’s words but one being narrated to him. The reader is taken out of the story and the illusion is lost.

Break Up Dialogue With Action.

Crawford Killian said this in his Online Writing Course “Action as well as speech is a part of dialogue. We expect to know when the speakers pause, where they’re looking, what they’re doing with their hands, how they respond to one another. The characters speech becomes just one aspect of their interactions; sometimes their words are all we need, but sometimes definitely more. This is especially true when you’re trying to convey a conflict between what your characters say and what they feel: their nonverbal messages are going to be far more reliable than their spoken words.”

Break Up Dialogue With Setting.

Long pieces of dialogue, broken up with description are easier for a reader’s eye and can convey more information about the character through the setting. A character working in the hot sun with sweat rolling down his face, will have a different conversation from one who is fighting his way through a snow storm.

Make The Content Of The Conversation Count.

Sometimes an author wants to get information to the reader. But if the main goal of the dialogue is to convey information to the reader and not the other character, then the scene will fall flat. One character should not tell another character information he already knows, like how they met or their own name.. But if information exchanged in a story matters to someone – if something is explained and someone is changed, the scene will move forward. If a character is told ‘your husband has just been killed in a car accident’, she reacts. If friends hear it, they react – although maybe less intensely.

Don’t Use Conversation To Fill Up Space.

Any worthy conversational disclosure will disillusion, applaud, explain irrational behavior or solve a mystery. And the reaction will be complicated by the history between the speakers. The character may receive the news about her husband’s death from a cop or his mistress. Or it might be from her son. All would be written with a different emotional intensity. Dialogue is brought to life by underlying emotions and conflicts with the characters and their situations.  However it is important not to use dialogue to tell the story by throwing in backstory dump i.e. “As you know, I met her ten years ago..”

Test Your Dialogue.

• Tape and transcribe two minutes of an actual conversation.

• Tape or write two minutes of a conversation from a TV show.

• Compare the differences between the above two and your own writing.

• Read your own dialogue aloud. If it sounds stilted, it will be picked up by reading it in this manner.

Then read, read, read other authors and how they handle dialogue.  Did they make the characters really hop off the page?

Writing effective dialogue isn't some mysterious quality of a chosen few. It is working out what the author wants a reader to get and understand from the scenes in his book and then writing it so that they do.

 What’s your favorite tip for writing dialogue?

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