Thursday, January 05, 2006

Writing Dialogue

When I was a child I used to love to read the dialogue parts so much that I would sometimes even skip over the narrative parts, especially if they were too descriptive. Today, I like reading all parts but I still have a soft spot for a good dialogue.

For the beginners among us, here are three rules I learnt early on:
1. Quotation marks is the most common device to denote dialogue.
2. The quotation marks go outside punctuation marks ex: "Don't do that," she said.
3. Start a new paragraph when changing speakers.

Now for the fun stuff - what is a good dialogue and how can a writer use dialogue?

Well, in my opinion as a reader, I first like the dialogue to sound natural. I don't mind if the dialogue uses specific language or grammar that is unique to the world the characters are in, but contrived or forced dialogue just doesn't work. The dialogue needs to feel as if it was actually spoken by the characters.

Second, I feel that a good writer uses dialogue to emphasize characterization. A good dialogue can make or break a character and I just love it when a character can almost be identified by the way s/he speaks.

Third, so often I see it - dialogue used to show, not tell. Dialogue used as a hook - starting a piece with an intriguing line of dialogue. Dialogue used to summarize an otherwise long and boring narrative. In general, good writers use dialogue as a writing device, as a plot device, not just he said, she said.

Fourth, attribution and tags. Usually we identify the speaker very early (said John), but if there are only two I feel it is okay to sometimes omit the attribution. As for tags, I don't particularly like them much. They should be used sparingly and most often 'said' is quite enough. The occasional 'he whispered', 'she shrieked', 'he exclaimed' is fine, but not often.

What else???
Yes, humour - the only way I manage to put a little bit of humour in my writing is when I write dialogue. It's easiest for those of us who are not very talented in that department but would still like a little comic relief every now and then.

Another big thing to remember is that dialogue isn't the same as conversation. In dialogue (as opposed to real life conversation) we usually do without the routine stuff of 'hey, how are ya?' and too many ummms and ers.

And a little quote from Robert J. Sawyer article Speaking of Dialogue (go read):
Finally, much real dialog goes unfinished. When someone is interrupted or cut off abruptly, end the dialog with an em-dash (which you type in manuscript as two hyphens); when he or she trails off without completing the thought, end the dialog with ellipsis points (three periods). Real dialog also tends to be peppered with asides: "We went to Toronto -- boy, I hate that city -- and found . . ."

Feel free to add things I missed or supply your own opinion on the dialogue writing techniques above.

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Trée said...

Melly, having never written dialouge until a couple weeks ago, I am all "eyes" on the comments to follow. Thanks for posting this and thanks for the pointers. Much appreciated.

redchurch said...


I'm editing my novel right now, and this stuff is at the forefront of my thoughts!

You read my mind!

Cavan said...

Ah yes, I'm a stickler for natural dialogue. Unfortunately, sometimes my quest for that natural feel brings me uncomfortably close to "conversational" dialogue. Sometimes this works for fleshing out a character, but sometimes I'm just doing a pretty bad job of things.

Carter said...

"Natural" dialogue is a dangerous area. What sounds natural in normal conversation is labored and almost incoherent on the page. On the other hand, reading your written dialogue aloud can sometimes cause you to think it's stilted and formal. It's a real hard balance to strike.

As far as tags go, I use "said" exclusively. I use narrative inserts as necessary to show tone of voice: "He spoke so softly his voice was almost lost in the street sounds.", etc.

I've been practicing dialogue a lot over the past 2 years. When it comes right down to it, that's the most important thing. As you work with it, you get a better feel for the nuances.

I was afraid of dialogue for years, because I did it so poorly, but many words later, I feel somewhat comfortable writing it. At some point you have to stop reading about it, smack down the internal critic, and start practicing.

BTW, my word verification is "hunkho". make of it what you will, I will suppress my thoughts for a less family-oriented venue.

AnneM said...

Good coverage Melly. I agree with Carter that "said" should be the nrom, perhaps with whispered or shouted.

Melly said...

Trée, thanks. What's working for you is the fact that you use the audio thing now, so it helps you realize if a dialogue doesn't sound right.

Eric, c'est moi! A mind reader!
Well, I guess all authors think of the same issues at some point, so it would be quite probable that we would tackle the same issues occasionaly.

Cavan, I think you say outloud what most of us think about our writing. From what I've read of your writing, I don't recall having any dialogue issues.

Dearest hunkho, I absolutely agree. That's why I made the distinction between dialogue and conversation. We don't write conversations, but we do write dialogue, and I still feel it should be read naturally. If you go to Rob's site, you'll see what I mean.
(Do I really have a family-oriented blog? I'll take that as a compliment, but really, I don't mind non family-oriented stuff ;)

Hey Anne. Yes I almost agree with Carter about that point because I think it should be used mainly, not exclusively. So, you know, I guess this is a matter of minor personal preference, but it seems we all agree on the big picture.

Anonymous said...

Melly - This is a great post. I pay very close attention to my dialogue. Bad dialogue can ruin an otherwise good book.

I don't like to use tags either. Only once in a while if I can't avoid it. Some authors overuse tags so much that it makes their books hard for me to read. I don't need to know how someone says every sentence that comes out of their mouth, lol.

Deborah said...

I like to add character expression and body language to my dialogue. Like anything else, though, it can be overused.

Trée said...

Which author(s) would you guys recommend for a primer on good dialouge?

melly said...

"Hey Fred," said Melly in a clear voice. "Why don't you want to know how I say things?" she asked in a demanding tone. "It's just like you," she finally added, but her voice had a hint of mischievous in it...
LOL - that was fun!

Deborah, absolutely. But I love it when a character says something that's unique to them. Not every sentence, but occasionally.

Trée, you want books with good dialogues, or a book about writing that also explains about dialogue?

rdl said...

Melly, dialogue has always been a big mystery to me, difficult that is. I just can't seem to comprehend how you make it natural or even just do it period.

melly said...

rdl, all you need is practice and you'll get it. Really. It can be learned. From there to making it spectacularly good, well, that's just the step where we all want to be :)

Benjamin Solah said...

I used to be very good at dialogue, but now it has become a little automated and unnatural, I'm working on it.

Pat Kirby said...

I've been told dialogue is my strong point. I know I like writing and reading dialogue. Description bores me. Give me action and dialogue, action and dialogue.

Even when there're just two people in the room/scene, an ocassional "Bob said" helps. Especially if neither character has a distinctive speech pattern. Instead of a tag, I might use action:

Mary shrugged on her coat. >"I'm leaving. Is there anything else?"

I "usually" stick to "said," but every so often use something else--"muttered," "grumbled," etc. (I also use adverbs from time to time. Gasp! Rules, schmules. Pffffft!)

One of my characters uses "uh" quite a bit. His speech pattern is modeled after Native Americans I know (he's a dark elf), and "uh" suits him and his careful way of speaking.

I have an acting background, so that may be why dialogue is easy for me. I often evaluate dialogue through an actor's eyes: Would this be an easy line to deliver or would it be the kind of klinker found in the latest Star Wars movies?

melly said...

Benjamin, I know exactly how you feel. It's the feeling we get after we've reached a plateau and stayed there for a while. We don't get worse, but don't improve either so it feels like we're getting worse. I'm sure your rise will continue soon :)

Pat, great points, thanks. That acting background must add another dimension to your writing.

Jennifer said...

I LOVE dialogue. It's the easiest part of writing for me (don't hate me :)). When I started writing I wrote scripts/plays, because I could write 90% dialogue.

I know for alot of people (at least those in my writing circle) don't like dialogue...and find it hard to write.

Good dialogue isn't always easy to find but when you find some it's wonderful to read.

One trick (that has helped me) is simply listening. Since I was a child I eavesdropped (shamelessly) on every conversation within hearing distance. And when I didn't get to hear the end of conversations I started creating my own. To this day I still do. I think it helps understand how dialogue flows (or actually doesn't flow...if you really listen to how people talk...) But listening to dialogue gives you an understanding of pacing, flow, language, and so much more.

Okay I'll quit rambling :) I do love dialogue though. I could write it forever and then some.

Jennifer said...

PS: I like your points. Good points for the beginner writer! And even us 'not' beginners.

And Pat :) SHAME on you for using those adverbs hehehe

Melly said...

Jennifer :)
I love it when you ramble!
I can see how dialogue would be easy for you ;)

Well, all I have to say is SHAME on you for eavesdropping and I agree, shame, shame on Pat for using adverbs :-)

You guys crack me up and make me use way way too many smileys :)

Jennifer said...

Aww! But smileys are good!!


Melly said...

Jennifer, I'm trying to maintain the appearance of professionalism here!
No smileys!!!
Only exclamation marks!