I’m very pleased to welcome Wendy Storer to the blog today with an excellent post on writing dialogue. Over to you Wendy …
Rule #1 – Dialogue should never be pointless
When your characters speak they come alive. Or at least they should do. If they are Mr or Mrs Boring and have little of relevance to say, if they are inclined to lecture, if they live in a vacuum or have no personality, then chances are your reader will not care if they live or die or dance the fandango stark naked.
The point of dialogue – as with everything else in your narrative – is to further the story. And by that I don’t mean you have to be dropping major plot points into every conversation; it’s there to enrich your fictional world by showing your reader something about character, providing texture or pace, and to build tension and drama.
Rule #2 – Always ground your dialogue in action
Behavioural psychologists estimate that only 7% of communication involves actual words; a whopping 55% of communication is done through body language, and the rest is down to the way you say those words – pitch, volume, tone etc. Real people are more than ‘talking heads’ and their words are never spoken in isolation.
Your supporting narrative helps create a more holistic and realistic scene. You might want to use it to describe the speaker’s twisted facial expression, or the way they fiddle with a pencil or keep glancing at the door, for example. You might want to mention how unintentionally high their voice sounds, or how the words trip themselves up as they emerge from your guilty protagonist’s mouth. Or you may want to highlight an absence of speech; a silence, punctuated only by the ticking of a clock… These behavioural observations are just as important as the words your characters use. (Similarly, the physical landscape.)
Remember also, that dialogue is fast, and you don’t always want it to be. Some words, revelations or moments of conflict need you to linger longer, while others might need a rapid pace to maintain tension and momentum. Use your supporting narrative to provide the beats which control the speed at which the words are delivered.
Rule #3 – Keep it real. Or to put it another way – don’t keep it too real
When you’re eavesdropping on a bus, the words you hear are the words which matter. All the ‘umms’ and ‘errrs’ and ‘you knows’ people unconsciously use to punctuate their speech with get filtered out. The juicy bits are the bits you remember because they are the interesting bits. Apart from cutting out the crap, this means, not allowing your characters the chance to give long, unbroken speeches, avoiding repetition of words and ideas, and not hanging out for the last word; get in late and leave early is my advice.
Of course, you can do all of these things if they are in character or there is a point to them; just don’t think that you can get away with it for very long.
Rule #4 – Avoid exposition
Dialogue is an easy way to reveal information, but it’s definitely not the only way, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If you let your characters go shooting their mouths off telling your readers what’s happening, you’ve wasted an opportunity to build tension and drama.
Remember who is talking and who is listening and be mindful of their points of view. Don’t let characters tell each other things they logically should already know.
Rule #5 – Avoid tags
“But you know this already, don’t you?” she suggested, sarcastically.
“What do you mean?” he queried, mystified.
“I mean that telling your reader how a person says something is just plain lazy,” she scoffed.
“Are you joking?” he snarled. “Do you mean I’ve wasted all those perfectly good verbs and adjectives?” he expostulated loudly.
She laughed, cruelly. “You’re not at primary school now,” she said.
You’re a writer. You are supposed to show not tell. And of course this includes dialogue. ‘Said’ is a good enough tag in most instances; it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative and allows your reader to focus on the story, rather than on your incredibly brilliant vocabulary.
You could write a whole thesis on dialogue, but I’m going to stop here. If you want to know how to punctuate dialogue have a look at my post here…
About the Author
Wendy Storer is the Author of Bring Me Sunshine and Where Bluebirds Fly, the co-founder of Applecore Books (an independent publishing co-op specialising in real life fiction) and the owner of Magic Beans – a literary consultancy for children’s writers.
Bring Me Sunshine was one of two runners-up in the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition in 2013.
Her next book, How to be Lucky, is to be published in the Summer.