This installment of Resource Roundup, I’m tackling dialogue, which is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of writing besides coming up with story ideas in the first place. I especially love banter – I think it’s because I can never come up with sharp comebacks quickly enough in real life and so I save them all for the page. By the way, the French have a word for this inability to come up with a timely, clever retort (of course the do): l’esprit de l’escalier, roughly translated as staircase wit.
As I did in previous Resource Roundups (Finding the Right Word and Conjuring Up Titles), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup page on the sidebar.
Now, let’s get started.
Don’t know where to start? Be sure to check out author Barry Lyga’s series on dialogue: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. Each segment is chockfull of examples and tips you can implement in your own writing.
And if you are writing dialogue, for the love of all that is holy, please learn how to punctuate it correctly. Marg Gilks’s article Punctuating Dialogue will help get you started. Also, be sure you know the difference in punctuating a speaker who has been interrupted versus one who just trails off (Dialogue Interruptus from Blood-Red Pencil).
When crafting dialogue, it can sometimes be difficult to ensure your reader knows exactly which character is speaking when. This is what’s known as talking heads syndrome, and you can find a good example of this type of exchange in Are Your Characters Talking Heads? via K. M. Weiland’s blog Wordplay.
So how do you avoid this? You can rely on speech tags (which are detailed in the next section) or you can find a way to make each character sound distinct from one another, so that even if you don’t explicitly tell the reader who is speaking, they can infer the speaker through the way the speech is constructed.
As discussed in All Write With Coffee’s post Dialog: Distinctive Voice – The Three V’s, each character should have their own level of 1) vocabulary, 2) verbosity, and 3) velocity, which can help writers make their characters’ speech distinctive.
Jason Black at Plot to Punctuation suggests you start by imitating the speech patterns of people you know in his article Un-Clone Your Characters with Distinctive Dialogue. He also suggests giving your characters certain mannerisms and deciding how formal or informal their speech is relative to others in your story as a way of making them stand out.
Speech tags are another way of leading your reader through conversations to help them understand who is talking when. But tags are a contentious issue. Some people advocate only using he said/she said and avoiding things like he whispered/growled/screamed etc. since the emotion should be clear from the dialogue itself. Then there are the dreaded adverbs, which can creep in like “he said softly” or “she said hesitantly” which are generally no-no’s. As a post over at the Ruff Draft explains, these techniques are throwbacks to a style of writing exemplified by Tom Swifties, a series of books dating back to the early 20th century.
Mary Kole’s post Tag, You’re It! How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags and Janice Hardy’s post Hey, Who Said That? provide a good overview of the different ways you can use dialogue tags effectively.
But sometimes, variation in your speech tags can be a good thing. Historical romance author Joanna Bourne provides an in-depth exploration of occasions when saidisms may be appropriate in her posts When to Use Saidisms and More Maunderings about Saidisms.
When writing, you want your dialogue to sound authentic to readers and to accurately portray your characters. But if you make your dialogue sound too realistic, you run the risk of having dialogue that is vague, irrelevant, or just plain boring. Similarly, you don’t want to slow down your dialogue with verbal pauses (um, so, like, yeah) because although they are ever-present in real life speech, you don’t want to have read them on the page.
In Speaking of Dialogue, author Robert J. Sawyer discusses how everyday conversations get translated to the printed page, and pitfalls beginning writers should avoid. Screenwriter Robert Piluso’s post Writing Fun, Funky Dialogue From The Hip provides a nice overview of ways to add the appearance of realism to your dialogue through fragmenting exchanges, portraying miscommunication, and cursing, to name a few.
Dialect is another tool writers use to make their characters sound more realistic. A reader can immediately determine things like geography and social status, which can help flesh out characters in a story. But it can be fatiguing to read if overused, and some people today have strong knee-jerk reactions to it. Juliet Marillier’s post A Wee Bit of Dialect for Writer Unboxed discusses why she chose to keep Welsh dialect in one of her books and why she now regrets that decision.
Also keep in mind the Rule of 12 (which I picked up from Pearl Luke’s Writing Dialogue with Good Tension), where characters (and real people) rarely speak more than 12 words at a time. If your character is going on and on without a break, you need to interject some narration to keep your reader on board, as explored in the next section.
Your characters’ conversations don’t exist in isolation. There are things your characters can think, see, smell, taste, touch, and do, even if they are talking to one another. Start with your dialogue as the skeleton of the scene, and then layer in action and description to make it more fully realized. Janice Hardy’s post Tag! You’re It, gives successive examples of this type of layering to strengthen dialogue-heavy scenes.
In addition to coming up with a story and characters, you must also be a choreographer and make your scenes move on the page. As Tom Leeven explains in Theater Techniques to Sharpen Your Dialog (a handy post from WriteOnCon):
“Blocking” is a term referring to the physical movements actors make on stage. It could be an entrance, exit, sitting, standing, a cartwheel . . . whatever. Blocking is physical action, motivated by emotional responses. Your characters have blocking, too. It’s most often found in the narrative surrounding your dialogue.
But some techniques are better than others for inserting action and description into your dialogue. Holly Bodger’s post Breaking Dialogue provides a great overview of how to break up your dialogue before, after, or in the middle of your character’s speech.
When to Put the Die in Dialogue at Make Mine Mystery talks about the importance of nonverbal reactions in conversations. You’ll find a good list here of behaviors people do depending on their emotional state. Also be sure to check out The Nonverbal Dictionary for other ideas, which I stumbled up thanks to Angela Ackerman’s Zombie Crew.
We often approach dialogue as a specific aspect of writing, but if done well, it can function in a variety of ways. A post over at The Blood-Red Pencil called Dialogue: Just the Way We Talk? shows that dialogue can be action, a means of defining character, showing emotion and mood, and intensifying conflict.
Theater Techniques to Sharpen Your Dialog provides a useful overview of how to make your dialogue show characters’ motivations and suggests that each line of dialogue should represent a win or a loss for each character – another way of introducing or intensifying the conflict in your story.
How you present dialogue can also influence your story’s pacing. In “Good Dialogue,” the Editor Said, the author states:
Manipulate the story’s pacing with dialogue. Don’t ignore the emotional state of your character. If she’s upset, don’t let her think deep thoughts, or speak in long sentences. We’re human. When upset, we speak in fragments. Clipped tones. To convert the emotion to the writing, use short, terse sentences and paragraphs. Forceful verbs. No frills. No fluff. Nothing to slow the reader down. This technique quickens the pacing. The reader reads faster, thus senses urgency. Conversely, to slow the pace during tender, poignant moments, do the opposite–allow your characters to think longer, more leisurely, unhurried thoughts, and let them speak in flowing, sensory-oriented sentences that slowly drift down the page. This tool conveys a character’s emotions to the reader, gains reader empathy.
All stories need to be revisited at some point, and the links below offer useful tips and tricks to keep in mind when revising your dialogue.
Writing the Short Story 6: Dialogue includes a list of generalizations for dialogue, revision tips, and exercises to make your dialogue snap, crackle, and pop.
For the ladies out there, read Therese Walsh’s post Turning X’s into Y’s – Guy Talk that Works to ensure your representing your male characters’ speech patterns correctly. And yes, the Gender Genie does work.
Trying to channel your inner teenager? Check out YA Characters – Four Tips for Portraying Young Adult Characters and Strange Things about High School in YA Books to get a better sense of how your YA characters should act and sound.
Internal monologues are the dialogue of your character’s brains. They can do a lot for deepening character and setting the tone, but the can also bring the action of the story to a screeching halt. The Dos and Don’ts of Internal Monologues at Wordplay explain the best way to implement internal monologues in your story.
What if you only have one character who spends the majority of time on the page alone? Author Clarissa Draper has a list of Creative Ways to Add Dialogue to One-Character Scenes.
Finally agent Nathan Bransford weighs in: About Those Books Beginning with Dialogue.
I hope you find these resources valuable as you craft the perfect lines for your characters! And if I’ve overlooked anything, please let me know in the comments!