I recently did a presentation on writing realistic dialogue for my local writers group. I decided to go ahead and post it here in case people who had to miss the meeting wanted a chance to read it. Then I thought you guys might like it, too. And if you end up singing Ten Duel Commandments to yourself for the rest of the day, you’re welcome.
Well-written dialogue is an amazing multipurpose tool – it’s a heavy-lifter. It’s the Swiss Army knife in a writer’s toolbox. It can convey character, emotion, and motivation all in a few carefully chosen words. It can also drive the plot. Poorly written dialogue is also a tool – usually a sledgehammer beating against the reader’s head.
It’s no secret that acquiring editors frequently scan for dialogue in submissions. And when it doesn’t work, they often pass on a manuscript without reading further.
I’ll admit that when I was working as an acquisitions editor, I always made a point to see how the author handled dialogue. If it was rife with the dialogue sins we’re about to discuss, the author received a rejection letter. If the dialogue had potential, I’d read more of the story and possibly send a revise and resubmit letter. If the dialogue was solid and engaging, I’d often read the entire submission. The moral of this story is that good dialogue will get you a lot farther.
My apologies for the terrible art. I borrowed my kid’s markers while he was gone. Shoulda waited for him!
#1 Thou shalt only use dialogue that moves the story forward.
Good dialogue should be boiled down to the most important bits. So, even if in real life, someone like your character might regularly make small talk about the weather, your character won’t. Unless, it moves the plot forward. Let’s say you feel his chats about the weather do move the story forward. How do they move the story forward? Are they metaphors for something else in his life? Perhaps a conflict or motivation that’s helping drive the story? Is that clear to the reader? If it’s not, lose it.
In real life we’re often far wordier and more repetitive than our fictional counterparts should be. And that’s fine. I mean, there’s no one standing around with a red pen marking up our conversations. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. *looks around furtively*
But unlike real life, our characters’ dialogue shouldn’t just meander around with pointless back and forth conversation because “that’s how real people talk”. Sure, your characters should probably greet one another upon meeting, but the normal conversational flow that typically occurs, should be purged so the characters and the readers can get to the stuff that matters—the words that will drive the story forward.
In real life, people tend to reiterate or repeat themselves while they’re trying to make a point. I know everyone in my family is especially guilty of this and it drives my husband and sister-in-law insane. Well, it drives readers insane, too. Say what needs to be said and move on. This keeps the dialogue and tension tight, and it keeps the story moving.
Dialogue often works best when the sentences are relatively short and stripped of unnecessary fluff. Shorter sentences also work to increase the tension. Sentence fragments can also be utilized in dialogue. But, like all sentence fragments, they need to form a complete thought even if they don’t form a complete sentence.
Of course, not all characters will be using the same rhythm, speech patterns, or word choices as other characters in your book – nor should they since good dialogue not only moves the story forward, it also reveals personality.
Speaking of personality, you’ll often see a lot of it in conversational banter. Banter is typically defined as light, playful or teasing conversation, which shows up often in romances and YA.
Sure, the banter might be cute. And possibly clever. But if cute and clever are all it is, and it doesn’t advance the plot, it should be cut or edited so it does move the story ahead. If you really want to keep that banter, can you use it to hint at deeper themes? Is that lighthearted conversation masking a character’s true feelings that we’re privy to by way of their thoughts? Does that interaction move the story forward? If not, you know what to do.
#2 Thou shalt show…not tell.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “show, don’t tell” fairly often in your fiction writing career. This applies to dialogue, too.
When a character’s emotional state is announced rather than shown through dialogue and action, that’s breaking the second commandment.
Here are some examples:
“I just don’t want to go,” Abbi expostulated.
“Are you sure? It’ll be fun,” Charles persisted.
“I’m serious!” she exclaimed.
“C’mon,” he cajoled.
“Just go away,” she implored.
“I don’t see why you have to be this way,” he groused.
All of those dialogue tags tell how the dialogue should be interpreted instead of showing through action tags or just letting the dialogue stand on its own.
Now, let’s make them worse.
“I just don’t want to go,” Abbi expostulated, impatiently.
“Are you sure? It’ll be fun,” Charles persisted, annoyingly.
“I’m serious!” she exclaimed loudly.
“C’mon,” he cajoled sweetly.
“Just go away,” she implored beseechingly.
“I don’t see why you have to be this way,” he groused petulantly.
Now, we’re being told how the characters are feeling, too.
Emotion – whether it’s fear, contempt, admiration, love, hate—whatever the emotion is what connects readers to the characters they’re reading about. Readers should be drawn so deeply into the story they’re experiencing an emotional connection to the characters. Usually, that’s accomplished by engendering an empathetic response in the reader. As authors, we want them to feel what the character is feeling.
Dialogue tags like these weaken dialogue. If the reader is constantly told how the character is feeling instead of shown, the only thing the reader is going to feel is annoyed. Writing like this, though rarely intentional, comes across as condescending – like perhaps the author thinks the readers aren’t quite clever enough to suss out the meaning without lots of helpful hints.
The easiest way to make this exchange better is through the use of action tags. And relying on words like “said” or “asked”.
“I just don’t want to go.” Abbi sighed and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Are you sure?” Charles asked. “It’ll be fun.”
God, why was this such a hard concept for him to get. She didn’t want to go anywhere right now. Especially not with him.
“C’mon.” He smiled and tugged at her.
She yanked her hand from his grip. “Just go away.”
“I don’t see why you have to be this way.” He frowned and backed from the room.
The dialogue is nothing special. It’s been the same all the way through. But I think the change from telling to showing greatly improves even this lackluster dialogue. And the inclusion of internal thought helps, too.
Now, I’m not saying never use tags other than said or asked, but use them sparingly. And use simple, common verbs: demanded, ordered, begged, pleaded, explained, etc. Don’t undermine your characters’ dialogue with all the different synonyms for said. And it’s not even necessary to tag every line of dialogue – particularly if it’s just two characters conversing.
While we’re talking about dialogue tags, please remember, your characters cannot laugh, smile, chuckle, grunt, sigh or grimace words and certainly not entire sentences.
Here are some examples:
“Well, that’s gonna leave a mark,” Jon grimaced.
“Oh, I don’t think she’s going to like that at all,” Alison laughed.
“Too bad, so sad,” Mark smiled.
Corrected, they’d be:
Jon grimaced. “Well, that’s gonna leave a mark.”
“Oh, I don’t think she’s going to like that at all.” Alison laughed.
Mark smiled. “Too bad, so sad.”
And one last important dialogue tag note.
Hissed is one of those tags that works every once in awhile. But, there’s an important rule to remember about whether or not dialogue can be hissed or not. It will only work is there are sibilant sounds in the sentence—or you know, your character speaks Parsaltongue.
Look at the words used in your dialogue. Are there any “S”s?
“Get back in your room,” he hissed doesn’t work, but “Get back into the house,” he hissed, does.
There are no sibilant sounds in the first example. And really for hissed as a tag to work well, the sibilant sound needs to come at the end of the sentence – like with house. It works even better if the sentence has more sibilant sounds, like: “Shhh. Get back in the house before he hears us.”
That’s it for this week, but check back next Tuesday for the next installment of dialogue commandments.